Overview of the U.S. Refugee Process

Learn the basics about getting into the U.S. under asylum protection.

Every year, the United States grants protection to thousands of people who have faced persecution, or fear future persecution, in their home country, based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Procedurally speaking, the U.S. grants this protection in two different ways:

  • by admitting people to the U.S. as refugees, after they have applied from within another country, and
  • by approving some applicants who are already within the U.S. and have applied for asylum.

This article will give an overview of how the refugee and asylee process works.

Eligibility Standards for Becoming a Refugee or Asylee

Despite the procedural differences, someone who seeks U.S. protection must meet the same standards whether the person applies as a refugee or an asylee. This is defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) Section 101(a)(42)(A) to include:

[A]ny person who is outside any country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion . . . .

Of course, this definition both raises and answers questions, such as "What is a 'particular social group?'" and "Does the persecutor need to have a connection to the government?" A great body of U.S. refugee law has developed to answer such questions -- and is still developing as new questions arise or new court cases lead to different conclusions.

It's also important to realize that not everyone who meets this definition will be granted refugee or asylee status. The person must also prove that they are not barred based on inadmissibility to the U.S. (for example due to past crimes or terrorist affiliations) or other specific legal barriers, such as having firmly resettled in a third country, or been a persecutor of others.

Numerical Limits

There are no limits on the number of people who can be granted asylum in the U.S. each year. (However, many are denied simply because they fail to prove they qualify.)

There is, however, an annual limit placed on refugee admissions. Prior to each fiscal year (which starts in October), the U.S. President, after consulting with members of Congress, sets the limit. The 2011 fiscal year limit is 80,000 individuals.

The President also divides this number between different regions of the world, based on an analysis of the greatest need. For 2012, the Near East and South Asia received the largest numerical allocation -- a total of 35,000, mainly due to the number of refugees expected from Iraq and Bhutan.

Application Process

Whether applying for refugee or asylum status, the process involves submitting proof of identity, description and evidence of the claimed persecution or reasons to fear persecution, and meeting with a government official to answer questions. There is no application fee for either.

For details on the refugee application process, see "How to Prepare and Submit a Refugee Application to the U.S." For details on the asylum application process, see "How to Get Asylum in the U.S."

The spouse and minor, unmarried children may also receive refugee or asylum status with the main applicant; or may apply on their own.

After Approval as a Refugee or Asylee

A grant of refugee or asylee status gives the applicant the right to enter the U.S (if need be) and remain there indefinitely -- assuming conditions in the person's home country don't clear up. The person can apply to become a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) one year later.

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