Refugee Immigration

In order to understand refugee immigration they must first understand what constitutes a refugee. To read the exact refugee definition a person must review the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) §101(a)(42). Generally, federal law describes a refugee as a person who is outside their country of origin, and who is unable or unwilling to return out of a fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Refugee Definition Expansion

In some cases, refugee definition can be expanded to include a situation in which the President of the United States specifies a group of people as refugees, even if that group is inside the country of origin. Under these circumstances, INA §207(e) requires the President to consult cabinet-level representatives and members of Congress to review the refugee situation and discuss the reasons why an admission of refugees is in the national interest.

In the fall of 2015, as millions of Syrians fled years of brutal violence in their home country, President Obama announced a plan to accept at least 10,000 refugees into the U.S.  In July of 2016, the administration announced it had met that goal. This represented a six-fold increase in Syrian refugees to the U.S. since 2015.

In some cases, a refugee will seek what is known as asylum inside the U.S. or at a U.S. port of entry. Once asylum is granted, a person can work in the U.S., apply for a social security card and permanent resident status. Asylum is usually granted on an indefinite basis, and once granted asylum, the foreign national cannot be deported to his or her home country.

Under the refugee definition there are several factors that could bar a person from achieving refugee or asylum status. This includes persons who ordered, or participated in the persecution of other persons on account of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group. A person with dual nationality cannot claim refugee status if it turns out one the countries of origin will provide refugee protection. Also, foreign nationals who are simply leaving their country of origin to seek a more prosperous life do not qualify under refugee definition.

This page was designed to help foreign nationals and their families learn more about what a refugee is and the process of applying for refugee status. Read on to learn more about the following topics:

  • Refugee Immigration Quotas
  • How Do I Immigrate as a Refugee?
  • Asylum
  • Can My Family Join Me?
  • Do I Need A Lawyer?

It is important to keep in mind that this page is not intended as a substitute for speaking with a qualified immigration attorney. Each refugee immigration case is different and the stakes are high. An experienced attorney will help the client avoid filing mistakes that could lead to delays, and even denial of application. If you have questions about refugee status and the immigration process, contact our office for more information.

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Refugee Immigration Quotas

Each year, the U.S. President designates certain areas of the world as regions from which the U.S. will accept a certain number of refugees. This list can change from year to year, but for 2016 the countries and quotas are as follows:

  • Africa 25,000
  • East Asia 13,000
  • Europe and Central Asia 4,000
  • Latin America/Caribbean 3,000
  • Near East/ South Asia 34,000
  • Unallocated Reserve 6,000

How Do I Immigrate as a Refugee?

If the refugee is outside the U.S., the process begins with the foreign national filing Registration for Classification as Refugee (Form I-590). Persons older than 14-years of age must also file a Biographic Information Form (Form G-325A). These are both filed at an overseas Department of Homeland Security Office or a consular office. The refugee will need to be sponsored by a person or organization that can provide housing and employment once the refugee is admitted to the U.S. The refugee must also have transportation to the U.S. This sponsorship can often be coordinated through the American Council for Voluntary Agencies.

Once the refugee’s application is approved, he or she has four months to enter the U.S. Failure to do so can result in the application becoming invalid. A person granted refugee status typically can file for lawful permanent residence (green card) after one year. Once granted lawful permanent status, the refugee is permitted to live and work in the U.S. for up to 10 years. A lawful permanent resident is eligible to apply to become a naturalized citizen after five years.

If you think you or a family member might be eligible to apply for refugee immigration status, contact our office to see how an experienced lawyer might be able to help.


If the refugee is already inside the U.S., or at a port of entry, there are procedures in place for the person to claim asylum status. The process often begins with a person filing an Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal (Form I-589). This form is filed with US Immigration and Customs Services (USCIS) within one year of the refugee’s arrival to the U.S. Our main asylum page has detailed information on the process of obtaining asylum.

After filing for asylum the foreign national must wait at least 150 days before filing an Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765). If asylum is granted before this time, the refugee is eligible to apply for employment authorization upon being granted asylum.

Can My Family Join Me?

Generally the spouses and children of refugees are allowed admission to the U.S. when accompanying a person who meets the refugee definition. Federal law provides for family admission even when the family members are not themselves refugees (INA § 207(c)(2)). Under the law, a child must be under 21 years of age. The definition of child includes stepchildren. In order to bring family to the U.S., the refugee usually files A Refugee/Asylee Petition (Form I-730). This form is filed through US Immigration and Citizenship Services.

Do I Need A Lawyer?

Persons seeking refugee status should retain the services of an attorney. However, refugee immigration has many pressing considerations on top of navigating the complex immigration system. Do you meet the meaning of the INS refugee definition? A good lawyer can answer that question, give you an idea of the likelihood of success, and help you navigate the USCIS system.

The job of an immigration lawyer is to help the client interact with multiple federal agencies and avoid filing errors that could prove costly, time consuming, and even lead to a denial of application. If you or a loved one has questions about obtaining refugee status, contact our office for more information.