Resettling in the US as a Refugee

Every year, millions of people from all over the world are forced to leave their homelands because of things like war and political unrest. Many flee out of fear for their lives or the lives of their family members. For example, members of their political party, religion or ethnic group may be the target of violence, even murder, at the hands of others in their country who don't share their beliefs or nationality.

Of the millions who flee, thousands come to the US for protection and are permitted to resettle here as "refugees." There are many restrictions and requirements on qualifying for refugee status. Not every person who flees his homeland is a refugee, as far as the US immigration law is concerned. Also, only a limited number of refugees are allowed to enter the US each year. For 2009, a total of 80,000 refugees may be admitted to the US.

So, if you or someone you know is thinking about coming to the US as a refugee, you need to know how refugee status is determined and how to go about applying for that status.

Refugee vs. Asylum Status

Being a refugee and seeking asylum are practically the same things. The major difference is in where you are when you ask for refugee or asylum status. If you're not in the US, then you need to seek refugee status. If you're already in the US, you need to ask for asylum. However, regardless of which status you're asking for, you have to be a "refugee" within the meaning of US immigration law.

Who's a "Refugee?"

Under the US immigration law, you're a refugee if you were persecuted in your native country, or you have a well-founded fear of persecution in your homeland, because of your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or even your ability to have children.

Refugee status won't be granted to anyone who has ever ordered, caused, helped, or taken part in the persecution of someone because of her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Also, you won't be granted refugee status if you've been firmly resettled in another country. "Firmly resettled" means that you've been offered resident status, citizenship, or some other type of permanent residence in a country other than the US and the country from which you're fleeing.


Persecution means serious violations of your human rights, or causing you pain and suffering because you're "different" in some way, such as nationality or religion. Some examples include killing someone, other than as lawful punishment for a crime, genocide, slavery, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Well-Founded Fear

A well-founded fear of persecution means that you have a genuine, credible fear of being persecuted or punished because of your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion if you stay in your native country. In addition, not only do you have to feel the fear personally, but the fear has to be "objectively reasonable." This means that someone else would feel persecuted if he was in the same position as you.

Past persecution usually establishes a reasonable fear of future persecution. For example, if you can show that you were imprisoned because of your political beliefs, you'll likely be able to establish a reasonable fear of being imprisoned again if you remain in your country.

It can help if you can substantiate or support your fear with some evidence or proof. Newspaper articles, statements from eyewitnesses, and photographs that show or tell about the persecution are good examples.

Grounds for Persecution

In order to qualify for refugee status, you have to prove that you were persecuted, or fear future persecution, based upon one or more of the personal characteristics or traits listed in the immigration law:

  • Race, which focuses on physical characteristics, such as being Caucasian ("white"), or Asian. Some of the most famous examples of racial persecution include apartheid in South Africa, the Holocaust, and slavery on the basis of race
  • Religion. Here, persecution may be based on your observance of religious practices or beliefs, but it's not necessary to actually have a particular religious belief or faith to establish persecution. For example, persecution may be found if you live in an Islamic nation and you're punished because the government thinks you're a Christian, even though you're not
  • Nationality is based upon the country in which you were born or where you're a citizen, and it's usually closely connected with your race and/or ethnicity
  • Membership in a particular social group. A "group" is a collection of people who all share a common, unchangeable characteristic or trait, such as sex or skin color. Examples of persecuted "particular social groups" include families, tribes, Iranian feminists and homosexuals
  • Political opinions or views. This can include your thoughts or opinions about a government, its officials, or its policies, and your membership in a particular political party. Like religious beliefs, you don't have to actually have a political opinion if the government, or the person persecuting you, thinks you have the opinion and it punishes you for it
  • Ability to reproduce. This is when you've been forced to abort a pregnancy or to undergo involuntary sterilization, or persecuted for failing or refusing to undergo such medical treatment

Admissibility to US

Even if you qualify for refugee status, you have to be "admissible" before you'll be allowed to enter the US. "Admissibility" is based upon a number of factors listed in the US immigration law. For example, you may be inadmissible if you have a serious and contagious disease, such as HIV-AIDS, or if you've been convicted of serious crimes, like murder or armed robbery.

How Do You Apply?

If you need protection you should contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate. You'll have to fill out an application, and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will interview you to determine whether you qualify for refugee status. Also, part of the application process includes fingerprinting and a medical examination. If the USCIS determines that you should be resettled in the US as a refugee, the US Department of State will finalize your application.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My application for refugee status was denied. Can I file another application?
  • After my application for refugee status is granted, how long will I have to wait before I can travel to the US? Can the US Embassy or any other agency offer me and my family any type of protection during the wait?
  • My cousin needs help in completing the refugee process. Can you help her from here? How much will you charge for helping us?
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