United States Department of State Publication 10427
United States Department of State
Who is a refugee?
A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. This definition of a "refugee" excludes people who have left their homes only to seek a more prosperous life. Such people are commonly called "economic migrants," and are not refugees. People fleeing civil wars and natural disasters also may not be eligible for refugee resettlement under U.S. law, though they may come under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR interviews those who believe they are refugees to decide whether they qualify for UNHCR protection and to determine whether the permanent solution in their case in resettlement in a third country such as the United States. If you are referred by UNHCR for resettlement in the U.S. or if you appear to be eligible on other grounds listed below, you will be interviewed by an officer of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who will decide whether you are eligible for resettlement. UNHCR and INS need to understand your situation clearly in order to make such a decision, so it is especially important that you give them as much detail as you can about why you left your country. This information will be held in the strictest confidence.
The preferred solution for most refugees is to return home as soon as it is safe for them to do so. Only the relatively few who cannot remain in countries of first asylum or who cannot eventually return home will be considered for third country resettlement.
Which refugees are eligible for resettlement in the United States?
Each year, the U.S. resettles a limited number of refugees. Refugees may be eligible for an INS interview for resettlement in the U.S. if:
- UNHCR or the U.S. Embassy refers them to the U.S. for resettlement, or
- they are members of specified ethnic or religious groups in certain countries as determined by the President of the United States. (For some groups, only those with relatives in the U.S. are eligible.)
Refugees with criminal records or certain serious health problems may be ineligible to enter the U.S. Ineligibility for the U.S. program does not necessarily preclude eligibility for UNHCR protection or resettlement in other countries.
I am not a member of a "nationality of special humanitarian concern" on the current U.S. list. Does this mean I cannot resettle in the U.S.?
The U.S. admits a few refugees from other countries each year under special circumstances. For further information contact UNHCR or the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
How can I find out if I am eligible for resettlement in the United States?
If you believe you might be eligible for resettlement in the U.S., make your interest known to UNHCR or the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your area. If you have close relatives in the United States, they should contact the nearest refugee resettlement agency for advice and help in preparing the necessary forms in support of your application.
What kind of processing can I expect under the U.S. program?
Non-governmental processing agencies carry out most of the preparation casework for INS interviews, in cooperation with U.S. Embassy officials. These agencies interview applicants, help prepare paperwork for INS, and arrange medical examinations and background checks (for security purposes) for those refugees approved by INS.
Following INS approval, the processing agency also asks for the names and addresses of any relatives in the U.S., for details on the person's work history and job skills, and on any special educational or medical needs of the refugee and accompanying family members, in order to determine the best resettlement arrangements for the refugee.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) generally arranges transportation to the U.S. on a loan basis. Refugees are expected to repay the cost of their transportation once they are established in the U.S. Refugees or their relatives may, of course, pay their own transportation costs in advance.
What family members may accompany me to the United States if I am approved?
Generally, only your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may accompany you. Other relatives may qualify for resettlement in the U.S. if they meet U.S. refugee criteria themselves.
What can I expect if I am resettled in the United States?
The United States is a land of great diversity. Refugees may be resettled in small towns or big cities. If you have close relatives already in the U.S., you will probably be resettled where they live. If you do not, a resettlement agency will decide the best place for you based on the availability of jobs and services. Refugees are expected to go to the assigned site and remain there during their initial resettlement.
The resettlement agency, often called the "sponsor," is the most important source of information and assistance during the first months of adjustment to life in the U.S. An agency representative will meet you at the airport, arrange for housing, and prepare a resettlement plan that includes initial contact with governmental services and employment agencies. If you are approved and you do not have a sponsor in the U.S., sponsorship will be arranged.
What will be expected of me as a new arrival?
Americans value hard work and initiative. You should try to get a job as quickly as possible. Many refugee families - like many American families - find that both husband and wife must work. Lack of English language skill will not prevent you from getting a job, but it may limit the kind of job you can get when you first arrive. Changing jobs is common as English language and job skills improve. Many new arrivals study part-time to improve their English language and job skills while they work. Resettlement agencies can help identify appropriate programs.
Successful resettlement depends on a refugee's ability and willingness to adapt to the new environment. Cooperation with the resettlement agency can be a key to the successful transition. Be realistic, but be optimistic. More than two million refugees have resettled in the U.S. in the past two decades. The vast majority have made the transition to life in the U.S. and have become valued members of American society.
Because the United States is so diverse, generalizing about what to expect is difficult. You may have heard stories from friends or relatives who have recently resettled in the United States. Remember that every resettled refugee has a different experience. Seek information from a variety of sources.
Resettlement is not a decision to be made lightly. It may mean you cannot return to your home country for many years. It may mean permanent separation from friends and relatives. But it may also be the beginning of a new life and new opportunities.