Humanitarian Law

Refugee Status

People in some countries may be persecuted just because of their race, religion, or color. Others may face threats just for speaking out against corruption or criticizing the government. If someone is at risk of harm by staying in their home country, they may be able to seek safety as a refugee in the United States.

U.S. immigration law can be complicated. This page provides general information about refugees in the U.S. If you want to know about how you can seek refugee status or asylum in the United States, talk to an experienced immigration law attorney for legal advice.

What Is a Refugee?

Refugee status is a type of humanitarian protection under U.S. immigration law. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the definition of a refugee is someone who is outside of their country and unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on:

  • Race
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Political opinion
  • Membership in a particular social group

However, refugee status is not extended to people who incited, ordered, or participated in the persecution of others based on account of race, religion, membership in a social or political group, or nationality.

Refugees also include people who have been forced to go through involuntary sterilization surgery, abortion, or coercive population control.

What Is the Difference Between a Refugee and an Asylum Seeker?

One of the main differences between refugees and asylum seekers is where they start the process. A refugee starts the application process outside the U.S. However, someone can seek asylum at the port of entry when they arrive in the U.S.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in 2020, there were 11,840 refugees admitted to the U.S., with most of the refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Ukraine. In 2020, there were 31,429 granted asylum claims, with the majority of individuals coming from China, Venezuela, and El Salvador.

How Can I Become a Refugee in the U.S.?

If you want to become a refugee in the U.S., you first have to get a referral for resettlement. Referrals can come from the U.S. embassy, certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

If you get a referral for resettlement in the U.S., the U.S. government will make the final decision to admit you as a refugee. Eligibility is based on:

  • In-person interview abroad
  • Fingerprints and background check
  • Medical exam
  • If the applicant qualifies as a refugee
  • If the applicant is admissible to the United States

Is There a Limit for Refugees?

Yes, there is an annual limit on the number of refugees admitted every year. The president has the power to limit the number of refugees under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). For example, from 2002 to 2022 the refugee admission ceiling has ranged from 18,000 to 125,000.

Can a Refugee Bring Family to the U.S.?

Refugees who relocate to the United States can apply to bring certain family members into the U.S. Using the Form I-730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition, you can apply to bring your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 years old within two years of arrival, with some exceptions.

Can Refugees Work in the U.S.?

If you come to the U.S. as an eligible refugee, you can legally work in the U.S. Refugees can work with an I-94 with a refugee admission stamp or with an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

Will I Get Sent Back to My Country?

If you want to travel outside the U.S. after refugee resettlement, you have to apply for a refugee travel document. If you decide to travel back to your home country, you may have to explain how you were able to go to your home country safely, or you could be deported back to your country of origin.

If you have any other questions about your asylum application, immigration status, or whether you qualify as a refugee, talk to an immigration attorney. An immigration lawyer who understands refugee cases can explain your rights and represent you in immigration court.

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