U.S. Refugee Admissions Program FAQs

Fact Sheet
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
January 20, 2017


What is the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and which agencies participate in it?

Every year, the United States provides opportunities to thousands of the world's most vulnerable refugees to resettle in the U.S., in a program endorsed by each President annually since 1980 through a Presidential Determination and notification to Congress. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is in keeping with our proud history of being a nation of immigrants and refugees, and is an important, enduring demonstration of our commitment to international humanitarian principles.

The United States is the largest refugee resettlement country in the world, admitting approximately two-thirds of all refugee resettlement referrals worldwide each year.

The Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) is committed to the effectiveness of the USRAP, and regularly assesses refugee populations worldwide to maintain the integrity of the program and to ensure that the program is responsive to the resettlement needs of the most vulnerable refugees.

While the Department of State manages the overall USRAP, multiple federal government agencies are involved in the refugee admissions and resettlement process, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), specifically U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS); and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

The USRAP has over thirty years of experience screening and admitting refugees. No traveler to the United States is subject to more rigorous security screening than the refugees the U.S. Government considers for admission. Only after the U.S. Government’s rigorous and lengthy security screening process has been completed and an applicant is not found to pose a threat does the U.S. Government grant that individual refugee admission to the U.S. Security screening of all refugees involves multiple U.S. agencies, including the Departments of State, Homeland Security (DHS), and Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, The National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, and two federal intelligence agencies.

Who exactly is eligible for refugee resettlement in the U.S.?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for providing life-saving assistance to refugees around the world. Many of the world’s refugees are unable to return home or permanently integrate into the country where they have sought refuge (known as the country of first asylum). For a small number, generally less than one percent, UNHCR identifies those refugees who are most in need of resettlement to a third country -- typically more developed countries, further from conflict regions, such as the United States.

UNHCR uses six criteria to determine if a refugee is an appropriate candidate for third country resettlement. For more information on UNHCR standards and criteria for determining resettlement as the appropriate solution for refugees, please refer to the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, available online here.

Who are the “most vulnerable” refugees that the United States admits?

There is no standard profile. Vulnerability is assessed on a case by case basis, and is generally understood as individuals who are not able to safely and voluntarily return home, are not thriving in their country of first asylum, and are not expected to be able to locally integrate in that country in the future.

Extremely vulnerable individuals may include female-headed households, victims of torture or violence, religious minorities, LGBT refugees, or people who need medical care that they cannot receive in their country of origin or the country of first asylum.

How does the U.S. Government decide who qualifies for refugee status under this program and who doesn't?

The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to make this decision. Under U.S. law, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five “protected grounds”:

• Religion

• Political opinion

• Race

• Nationality

• Membership in a particular social group

Furthermore, a refugee must be deemed admissible to the U.S. and not be firmly resettled in a third country.

For a list of grounds that would disqualify a refugee from being admitted to the United States, please visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

How does the USRAP work overseas? Can you provide an overview?

The USRAP is led by the Department of State and includes the major participation of DHS and HHS. Along with these three U.S. government agencies, the USRAP involves international organizations such as UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a number of nongovernmental refugee resettlement agencies, and U.S. states, cities, private citizens, religious organizations, and community groups. But only the U.S. Government – specifically DHS – has the authority to determine which refugees will ultimately be offered admission to the U.S.

In the vast majority of cases, the first step in refugee resettlement is a determination by UNHCR that a refugee is need of third country resettlement. U.S. embassies and certain NGOs are also qualified to refer cases to the USRAP, but the program receives very few from those two sources. A minority of refugees considered for resettlement in the U.S. enter our program through direct applications, often through family members who are already in the United States or through another U.S. affiliation.

Congressionally authorized direct application programs include a program for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, which is operated in Baghdad, Jordan and Egypt and a program for Iranian religious minorities operated largely in Vienna. We also have a program for former Soviet Union religious minorities mostly operated in Moscow and a program in Havana for various categories of Cubans. Our newest program is a program for Central American Minors (the CAM program) with a lawfully present parent in the United States. As stated previously these cases represent a minority of all refugee applications, worldwide.

Regardless of the origin of the referral, once a case enters the USRAP, all cases are treated the same: case files are prepared by staff at one of nine Department of State-funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) across the world. At each RSC, caseworkers interview the refugee and his or her family, take photos, check the facts in the file, collect initial information to begin the security clearance process, and collect other biographic information to be presented to a DHS officer.

While most other resettlement countries focus on a handful of populations in certain locations, the United States has a worldwide presence. RSCs are currently located in nine primary locations around the world, many of which have sub-offices in the surrounding region:

• Amman, Jordan with sub-offices in Baghdad, Iraq and Cairo, Egypt;

• Bangkok, Thailand with a sub-office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia;

• Damak, Nepal;

• Havana, Cuba;

• Istanbul, Turkey with a sub-office in Beirut, Lebanon;

• Moscow, Russia with a sub-office in Kyiv, Ukraine;

• Nairobi, Kenya with a sub-office in Johannesburg, South Africa;

• Vienna, Austria; and

• Quito, Ecuador with small sub-offices in San Salvador, El Salvador and Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Once case files are prepared at the RSC, the next step is the DHS interview, where officers from USCIS personally conduct extensive, in-depth interviews in the countries in which the refugees are located.

The DHS officer verifies the refugee’s biographic information, takes fingerprints, and gathers details on the individual’s history, refugee experience, and other information. The DHS officer uses all of that information to determine if the individual qualifies for refugee status under U.S. law and meets the criteria for resettlement in the United States.

Once this qualification has been established, refugees are subject to intensive security screening. All refugees undergo multiple, detailed security checks before being approved for U.S. admission. The Department of State and DHS work together to submit the refugee’s information into a U.S.-based security screening process, which compares biometric information, personal data, and the refugee’s application information against a wide array of U.S. government databases and terrorism watch lists, including from the FBI, Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense, as well as the National Counterterrorism Center as well as additional intelligence agencies.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.

Additional information on refugee security screening is available here.

If approved, the applicant and his or her family undergo medical examinations to identify diseases of public health significance such as tuberculosis; these exams are standard for all immigrants seeking to reside permanently in the United States. Refugees are not allowed to travel to the United States until their medical checks have been performed and cleared. More information regarding the requirements for these examinations may be found at the website for the CDC.

Finally, refugees attend cultural orientation, which in most cases includes a three-day class providing information about customs and procedures in the United States and which helps the refugees understand what type of support they will receive from the resettlement agencies and their communities when they arrive. Cultural orientation also clarifies what the United States expects of the refugees, including their responsibility to find work, support themselves and their families, abide by the law and learn English.

What happens to refugees once they are admitted to the U.S.? Who works with them domestically?

Refugee travel is arranged on behalf of the U.S. Government by IOM. Before departing for the U.S., refugees sign a promissory note agreeing to repay the U.S. government for their travel costs. These loans are typically repaid within five years, and are an important step for refugees seeking to establish a credit history once they arrive in the United States. This repayment program is also one of the first steps that refugees take toward financial self-reliance, a key emphasis of the USRAP.

The State Department works with nine domestic nonprofit organizations to resettle refugees. These organizations have about 315 affiliates in 180 communities throughout the United States. Every year, each of these nine agencies and any new agencies that would like to be considered for participation in the program – it’s an open, competitive process – submit proposals describing their capacity to resettle refugees. The proposals detail everything from staff capacity, the size of affiliate offices, foreign language capacity, what sorts of special needs cases (e.g. special educational, medical or other needs) they are able to work with, and a variety of other information.

Once this information is collected and following consultations with state officials, proposals are reviewed and the State Department determines an overall numerical placement plan by location. The placement of specific refugee families in specific communities, however, is determined by the Department of State and the resettlement organizations on a weekly basis. Every week, representatives from each of these nine organizations meet to review information on refugee families who have passed the DHS interview, security screening, and medical screening. A variety of factors are taken into account when deciding where to place specific refugees, but the most important factor for placement is if a refugee has relatives in a specific community (often refugees who have preceded them). If so, the refugee is likely to be resettled near those family members, because being resettled near family contributes greatly to a refugee’s long term chance of success in the United States.

Resettlement organizations meet refugees at the airport and begin the process of helping them get resettled and acclimated in their new communities. Resettlement agencies are responsible for providing initial reception and placement services in the first 30 to 90 days after the refugees arrive, which includes finding safe and affordable housing and providing a variety of services to promote early self-sufficiency and cultural adjustment.

It is important to note that, once a refugee arrives in the United States, they are allowed to move freely within the United States. Like all other immigrants, refugees are not bound to remain in the state to which they are initially resettled, although the assistance to which they are entitled might not follow them to a new state.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) also funds programs for which refugees are eligible up to five years after arrival. Thus, although the Department of State’s role in the domestic resettlement is limited to the first 90 days, HHS/ORR funding comprises a critical component of support once those initial 90 days have expired.

How much time does the entire refugee resettlement process typically take?

Worldwide, the average processing time is about 18 to 24 months from UNHCR referring a refugee to the U.S. for consideration, through the U.S. Government’s screening and processing of the applicant, to the U.S. Government granting admission to the refugee. But every case is different, and processing times vary.

Are there educational or language requirements for the refugees the U.S. Government considers for admission?

The USRAP has no requirements in terms of educational background, English language, or other education in order to consider an applicant for refugee admission to the U.S. The program focuses on providing durable solutions to the most vulnerable refugees. Once admitted to the U.S., the USRAP requires that refugee children attend school and the program strongly encourages refugees to learn English.

Where do the UNHCR and DHS interviews take place?

The UNHCR interviews and all pre-screening and DHS interviewing takes place in the foreign country to which a refugee has fled overseas.

How much does the resettlement program cost?

In FY 2016, the U.S. Department of State spent nearly $545 million on the USRAP, as authorized by the U.S. Congress.

Does the Department of State track refugees once they enter the U.S.?

While the Department of State requires that the resettlement agencies provide employment statistics at 90 days and the Department of Health and Human Services requires that the resettlement agencies provide information on refugees that are enrolled in certain programs, refugees have the same freedom to live or travel throughout the United States as any other lawful immigrant.

Do potential or current refugee resettlement communities have a say in where and whether refugees are resettled in their communities?

All resettlement agencies are required by State Department guidelines to consult quarterly with stakeholders in their communities. These stakeholders can include, but are not limited to: local law enforcement, emergency services and first responders, public schools, private citizens, and other agencies that have a stake in refugee resettlement. The content of these conversations is taken into account when the Department of State makes placement plans.

Can refugees’ nuclear and/or extended family join them? Can refugees petition for other family members to join them after they arrive in the U.S.?

Generally a refugee "case" consists of the principal applicant, his or her spouse, and unmarried children under the age of 21. Additional relatives may be considered on a case by case basis.

Once a refugee arrives in the United States, a number of avenues exist to petition for other members of his or her immediate family. Under Priority Three (P-3) processing, a refugee or asylee who is at least 18 and been in the U.S. in refugee or asylee status for no more than five years can file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) for a spouse, parents, and unmarried children under the age of 21. This form must be submitted to the Department of State through a resettlement agency affiliate in the refugee's geographic area. This program is only open to designated nationalities, set by the Bureau in consultation with DHS/USCIS at the beginning of each fiscal year. DNA testing of refugees/asylees and certain family members overseas is a requirement of this program.

A refugee who has arrived in the United States, or a person granted asylum in the United States, can also file a Form I-730 (Visa 93) for a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21. There are no restrictions on nationalities that can file this petition, but it must be filed with DHS/USCIS within two years of arrival in the United States. The Form I-730 may be downloaded from the USCIS website (www.uscis.gov) and can be submitted directly to DHS/USCIS without the aid of a resettlement agency. However, a refugee may consult with a resettlement agency in his/her geographic location for details about this program.

Lastly, a refugee has the option of filing a Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative upon arrival in the United States. Only U.S. citizens or refugees with Legal Permanent Resident status are eligible to file this petition. Depending on their legal status in the U.S. applicants may apply on behalf of spouses, children, parents, and siblings. Please visit the DHS/USCIS website for eligibility requirements and filing instructions.

Do refugees automatically become U.S. citizens?

No. Refugees are admitted to the U.S. as refugees and remain in that status for 12 months. They are authorized and expected to work during this time. After 12 months, they are required to apply to adjust their status to Legal Permanent Resident (commonly known as a “green card holder”).

Refugees can apply for citizenship after having been resident in the United States for five years, but this is not a requirement. Refugees are permitted to remain in the United States as Legal Permanent Residents.

Can you describe the security screening process in more detail?

Nothing is more important to us than the security of the American people. The United States remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people, just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people. These goals are not mutually exclusive.

All refugees undergo the most intensive security screening of any traveler to the United States. This screening includes multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening. A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.

The U.S. Government has a great deal of experience screening and admitting large numbers of refugees from chaotic environments, including where intelligence holdings are limited.

The Department of Homeland Security has full discretion to deny admission before a refugee comes to the United States. When in doubt, DHS denies applications on national security grounds and the individual never travels to the United States. DHS’ decisions are guided by the key principle affirmed throughout the U.S. Government that the safety and security of the American people must come first. The U.S. Government has the sole authority to screen and decide which refugees are admitted to the United States.

In performing this security screening, all available biographical and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee’s identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview. DHS conducts extensive in-person, overseas interviews of all refugee applicants. Biographic checks against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, known as CLASS, which includes watch list information, are initiated at the time of a prescreening at the RSCs.

In addition, the State Department requests security advisory opinions from the law enforcement and intelligence communities for those cases meeting certain criteria. Biometric checks are coordinated by USCIS using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs at the time of the interview. These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the FBI, the integrated automatic –Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), and screened and enrolled in DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System, which is known as IDENT.

Through IDENT, applicant fingerprints are screened not only against watch list information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the United States and overseas, including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy.