Bureau of Refugee Services
U.S. Refugee Program

Definition of a Refugee


Refugees, according to the United States Department of State, are persons of special humanitarian concern who can establish persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.


Each year, the President of the United States, after consulting with Congress and appropriate agencies, determines the designated nationalities and processing priorities for refugee processing for the upcoming year.  The President also sets annual ceilings on the total number of refugees who may enter the U.S. from each region of the world.


The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) of the Department of State administers the U.S. refugee resettlement program in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


Guidelines for Application


Applicants for refugee admission into the United States must meet all of the following criteria: 

  1. The applicant must meet the definition of a refugee contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act;
  2. The applicant must be among those refugee groups determined by the President to be of special humanitarian concern to the United States;
  3. The applicant must be otherwise admissible under United States law; and
  4. The applicant must not be firmly resettled in any foreign country.

 Although a person may be eligible according to the criteria above, their eligibility only establishes access to the program; it does not guarantee resettlement.


Individuals residing in a country of first asylum, or in some cases within their own country, who believe they may be eligible for the U.S. refugee program, must first register with the nearest United States High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office or a U.S. Embassy.


Representatives form UNHCR pre-screen each case based on U.S. national interests, the refugees' situation in temporary asylum, the conditions from which they have fled, and other humanitarian considerations.


Applicants who meet the specified criteria and fall within the priorities established for the relevant nationality or region are referred by UNHCR to the joint voluntary agency (ies) (JVA) serving the geographical area.


Voluntary Agencies, Related Agencies


The Department of State enters into cooperative agreements with either voluntary agencies or the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to assist in the processing of refugees for admission to the United States.  The State of Iowa is one of ten voluntary resettlement agencies in the United States.


Refugee Processing


Once a referral has been received, a refugee case file is prepared for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration (USCIS) officer of the Department of Homeland Security who conducts the actual interview.  This case file consists of a request for refugee status, a biographic information form and other documents.  The USCIS officer is the only person authorized to accept, approve or deny a case for admission.


In order to be approved as a refugee, an applicant must establish that he or she has suffered past persecution, or has a well-founded fear of future persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  This determination requires the examination of objective and subjective elements of an applicant's claim.  The interview is non-adversarial and is designed to elicit information about the applicant's claim for refugee status.  The officer asks questions about the reasons for the applicant's departure from the country or origin, political or religious beliefs or activities, and problems or fears the applicant may have had or will have if returned to his/her home country.  Conditions in the country of origin are taken into consideration, and the applicant's credibility is assessed.


After the USCIS interview, an applicant found eligible for refugee status must undergo a medical examination, a security name check and receive a sponsorship assurance.


Departure to the U.S.


Individuals granted refugee status by the U.S. are provided medical examinations, inoculations and necessary treatment in preparation for their departure.  The Department of State strives to ensure that refugees who are accepted for admission to the United States are prepared for significant changes they will experience during the initial phases of resettlement.  It is critical that refugees arrive with a realistic view of what their new lives will be like, what services are available to them, and what their responsibilities will be.  The goal of the orientation efforts is to ensure that all refugees receive basic information before departure.


The Department of State makes funds available for the transportation of refugees resettled in the United States through a program administered by IOM.  The cost of transportation is provided to refugees in the form of a loan.  Beneficiaries are responsible for repaying these costs over time.




After a case has been approved for U.S. resettlement, the biographical data on the family/individual and their resettlement interests are forwarded to the Refugee Processing Center in Virginia.  Through an allocation and case assignment process, the case is allocated to one of the nationally voluntary agencies.  The national agencies have local affiliates scattered throughout the United States that actually facilitate the resettlement.


Priority consideration in the allocation process is provided to those agencies who have already filed an "interest card" on a particular case.  Interest cards may be filed on behalf of refugees when an agency has a special interest in the case; the purpose is to facilitate family reunification; or direct assistance has been provide to the refugee abroad.


The last step in the admission process is the assignment of a sponsoring agency.  The Sponsoring Agency is the Affiliate of one of the 10 national Voluntary agencies.


At the U.S. port of entry, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) admits a refugee to the United States and authorizes employment.  After one year, a refugee is eligible to apply for adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident.  Four years and nine months after admission, a refugee is eligible to apply for citizenship via naturalization.


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