How to Prepare and Submit a Refugee Application to the U.S.

Get tips on completing the refugee application form and required documents.

By , Attorney · UC Davis School of Law

If you are outside the United States and living in a host country outside your country of citizenship, and have experienced past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution in your home country, you might be able to apply for refugee status, potentially allowing you to come to the United States. The application process involves filling out a refugee application form, providing certain documents, attending interviews, and meeting various criteria. (As a side note, humanitarian parole is another means of asking for temporary permission to enter the United States for urgent reasons, such as to apply for asylum.)

Your case will start with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an international organization. It will decide which country to refer your case to for refugee processing. If it chooses to refer you to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), a Refugee Officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. government's immigration agency, will make the ultimate decision on your refugee application.

One of the factors that impacts whether your case will be considered by the United States is the annual limits on the number of refugees it will consider, as determined by the U.S. president. There has been significant flux in the numbers in recent years, and that is likely to continue.

Below, you'll find more details on the steps to coming to the United States as a refugee.

Step 1 – Find and Register With a UNHCR Office

The first step, and potentially the most difficult, is to find and register yourself as a refugee with the UNHCR in the host country where you are living. If you are living in a refugee camp, there might be UNHCR representatives there to assist you. However, if you are an urban refugee, you'll need to find the closest UNHCR office in the country where you are currently staying. For example, if you are in Jordan, there might be an office in Amman. However, many Syrian refugees in Jordan live in refugee camps closer to the Syrian border.

The first time you tell an official why you left your home country and why you are afraid to return will be with the UNHCR official.

Step 2 – Gather Evidence to Support Your Claim for Refugee Status

Before the relevant agencies and government officials can consider your claim for refugee status, you need to prove who you are, with identity documents or by any means possible. UNHCR recognizes that you might have fled too quickly to get a passport from your country. The relevant officials will review whatever you might have, such as your driver's license, state-issued identification document, birth certificate, student identity card, and military book if you are in or previously served in your country's military.

When you get to Step 3 below (appointment with Resettlement Support Center or "RSC"), you will also need to provide the RSC with this evidence.

If you do not have evidence of your identity, that might be okay, because as someone who has been forced to flee, you might not be required to have all that would otherwise normally be available to you. You do not have to translate your documents; the officials will do it for you.

Step 3 – UNHCR Referral to a Country of Intended Resettlement

UNHCR refers refugees to various countries for resettlement. You cannot ask to be sent to a particular country. However, you may indicate that you do not want to have your application submitted for consideration by a particular country.

If and only if UNHCR refers your case to the U.S. for refugee processing will you have the opportunity to apply for refugee status in the United States. There is no guarantee that UNHCR will do so, though it will take personal circumstances into consideration. For instance, it might consider whether you have qualifications or needs with respect to one country as opposed to another, as well as any family or other ties to a particular country.

Step 4 - Preparing for Your Refugee Interview With RSC

If the UNHCR refers your case to the United States, you will be scheduled for an appointment with an intermediary organization known as a Refugee Support Center (RSC). It will handle your case going forward, including preparing you to meet with a USCIS Refugee Officer. USCIS is the U.S. government agency that will eventually interview you and decide whether to approve you to travel to the United States as a refugee.

The RSC is the local processing partner of USCIS in refugee host countries who helps prepare you and your application for the interview with the USCIS officer. You will have several appointments with the RSC throughout the refugee application process. During these appointments, the RSC officials will discuss the process of applying to the USRAP, gather documentation relevant to your application such as identity documents for you and your family, help you fill out your refugee application, and gather relevant details about your refugee claim that the refugee officer who interviews you will need to know.

The RSC will ask you numerous questions about why you left your home country and why you cannot return, similar to the questions asked by UNHCR. Try to have all the relevant names, dates, and facts clear in your head before your appointment with the RSC. Do your best to provide honest and accurate information; be careful of situations where, for example, you only half understand what the RSC is asking, and nod in agreement to something without really knowing what it meant.

The RSC official will attempt to verify your identity and initiate security checks for the USCIS refugee officer. Security checks are required by the U.S. government for every applicant to the USRAP.

Step 5 - Refugee Interview with USCIS Refugee Officer

Once the RSC has all of your information and your application is complete, it will schedule you for an interview with an American Refugee Officer. It could be a lengthy wait for a USCIS interview, as Refugee Officers must travel from the U.S. to the host country where you are at and many other refugees are in line waiting for interviews. Try not to become discouraged during this time. If you have any questions about the process while you are waiting for your USCIS interview, talk to the RSC.

During your interview with the USCIS Refugee Officer, you will have to explain your life story, the persecution or harm or suffering you experienced in your home country, why you fled, and why you do not want to or cannot return. You will also have to provide information about your family connections, including whether they suffered similarly.

The questions asked by the USCIS Refugee Officer might feel similar to those previously asked by UNHCR or the RSC. However, the Refugee Officer will ask for greater detail about your situation and this interview could be much longer than the previous times you told your story. The decision on whether to grant you refugee status might rest on the Refugee Officer's perception of whether you are telling the truth or not, in other words, on whether you are credible. Be careful not to contradict yourself between your appointments with the UNHCR and RSC and your interview with USCIS. It is also important to be truthful, because even a small misrepresentation can harm your chances of coming the United States, as a refugee or otherwise.

In considering refugee applications, Refugee Officers also do their own factual and legal analysis, based on international law-based guidelines, not U.S. law. The Refugee Officer will also do background and security checks for the U.S. government to make sure that, for example, you are not tied to any terrorist organizations or groups known for violent activity or persecuting others.

If the U.S. government denies your refugee application, there is no right to appeal, but there is a process to request that USCIS review the denial. You would submit it directly to the RSC, who would then forward your request to USCIS. It must be in English, and you may hire an attorney to assist you. If your case is denied, you would likely benefit from the assistance of a licensed United States immigration attorney. You only have 90 days from the date of the decision to request this review.

Step 6 – Approval for U.S. Refugee Status

If USRAP approves your application for U.S. refugee status, the RSC will send you and your family to have medical exams done. The purpose here includes screening out people who might present a risk to people in the United States due to having a communicable disease of public health significance, a physical or mental disorder with associated harmful behaviors, an addiction to or dependence on psychoactive substances, or any of certain other physical or mental abnormalities, disorders, or disabilities. Not every disease will be a problem, however, particularly if it can be cured.

The RSC will provide you with cultural integration education and arrange your travel to the United States. You will also be referred to a nongovernmental organization in the United States. (a Refugee Resettlement Agency or RRA) who will serve as your sponsor. You do not need to find a financial sponsor. The resettlement agency to which you are referred will send someone to meet you at the airport and help provide support during your first few months in the United States.

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