Rights and Responsibilities of Refugees in the U.S.

Learn about your rights and responsibilities under immigration law as a refugee or asylee.

If you came to the United States as a refugee, you will be given certain additional protections after you arrive -- and also accept certain responsibilities. Here's a review of what to expect and do.

Resettlement Assistance

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), in partnership with various nonprofit agencies and volunteers, will provide you with certain benefits from the day you arrive in the United States. These may include help with things like finding and furnishing an apartment, getting acquainted with the bus and public transport system in your area, enrolling your children in school, finding a doctor, learning English, and hunting for a job.

You may also be eligible for Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) or Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA), administered through your state government. However, you can claim this only during your first eight months in the United States. And not everyone receives cash benefits. It's meant as a backup in case you are unable to find work. You are expected to become self-sufficient within a year of your arrival in the United States.

Right to Stay and Work in the U.S.

As a refugee, you are allowed to remain indefinitely in the United States – at least, until conditions in your home country improve and you are no longer afraid to return. Your Form I94 Arrival/Departure Record will provide proof of your status. You can use it to obtain a U.S. Social Security card, which you must show to employers when you start working. To apply for a Social Security card, go to www.ssa.gov, call its toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213, or visit a local Social Security office.

You can also apply for a work permit (better known as an Employment Authorization Document or EAD). It's a handy form of photo ID. The work permit will need to be renewed on an annual basis. To apply, see How to Apply for a Work Permit. No fee is required with your first I-765.

Right to Reunite With Overseas Family Members

You may have already gained refugee status for your close family members (spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age). However, if some of them remained overseas up until now, or did not receive refugee status with you - even though they're now in the U.S. - you can petition for them to join you, or to receive what is called "derivative refugee status."

Note that the persons must have qualified as your spouse or child on the date you entered the U.S. as a refugee, and the relationship must continue to exist. In other words, you cannot marry or adopt someone now and claim them as your derivative. Nor can you bring in a spouse from whom you have divorced.

To request derivative refugee status for your family, submit USCIS Form I-730, Refugee and Asylee Relative Petition, to the USCIS Nebraska Service Center.  The form is available for free download on the I-730: Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition page of the USCIS website.

There is a deadline: You must file the form I-730 for each qualifying family member within two years of the date you entered the U.S. as a refugee. If you have missed that date, talk to an attorney. It is possible for USCIS to make an exception and extend this time period for humanitarian reasons.

Traveling In to and Out of the U.S.

Refugees are allowed to travel outside the United States. However, even if you already have your own passport, you will need to get a Refugee Travel Document for use when reentering the United States. You can apply for this by filing USCIS Form I-131. It’s available for free download on the I-131 Application for Travel Document page of the USCIS website. If you don’t have your own passport, this document will be accepted by other countries as a passport equivalent.

One important caution: Do not travel back to the country from which you gained refugee status. If you do, then you may be found to have given up your refugee status, because you no longer fear persecution there.

Right to Apply for a Green Card One Year After U.S. Entry

A refugee will need to wait one full calendar year in order to begin the process of applying for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card). You'll apply using a procedure known as "adjustment of status."

Note that refugees pay no fee to the Form I-485 required to adjust status. In addition, refugees do not have to pay biometrics (fingerprinting) fees.

Responsibility to Pay U.S. Taxes

As residents of the United States, refugees must pay income and other taxes. Tax returns, and (if you earned enough) payment of taxes to the federal and state government are due every April 15. Nonprofit agencies may be able to help you with your tax return at low cost or for free.

Responsibility to Obey U.S. Laws

As a refugee, you must be aware of your responsibilities under U.S. law. An important one is that your notify USCIS of any change in your address. You must do so within ten days of moving using Form AR-11, Alien’s Change of Address Card.  You can file this online at the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov.

If you are a male refugee between the ages of 18 and 26, you must register for the U.S. Selective Service – that is, the list of people who may be called upon in a military draft. Sign on to the Selective Service website at www.sss.gov or pick up a Selective Service “mail-back” registration form at your nearest U.S. post office.

Of course, you must also comply with other U.S. laws, for example by not committing any crimes. Failure to comply with these responsibilities could result in loss of your status and right to remain in the United States.

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