Every year millions of people around the world are displaced by war, famine, and civil and political unrest. United States considers persons for resettlement to the U.S. as refugees. Each year, the U.S. President consults with Congress and establishes the proposed ceilings for refugee admissions for the fiscal year. For the 1999 fiscal year, the total ceiling was set at 78,000 admissions and was allocated to five geographic regions:
  • Africa (12,000 admissions),
  • East Asia (9,000 admissions),
  • Europe (48,000 admissions),
  • Latin America/Caribbean (3,000 admissions),
  • Near East/South Asia (4,000 admissions), and
  • the Unallocated Reserve (2,000).

Refugee definition
A refugee is defined as a person outside of his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions.

Under U.S. law, a person who has committed acts of persecution, or has assisted in the commission of persecution in any way, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is not eligible for classification as a refugee.

The steps that refugee applicants follow before their eligibility interviews with USCIS officers vary.
  • Many applicants are referred to the United States Refugee Program (USRP) for resettlement consideration by officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  • A smaller number are referred by a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
  • Other applicants are eligible to apply for the USRP directly because they are of nationalities designated as being of special humanitarian concern and in processing priorities eligible for resettlement consideration.
Generally, voluntary agencies or the Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) representatives conduct pre-screening interviews and prepare cases for submission to USCIS; they complete the required forms and compile any necessary documents.

Eligibility for refugee status is decided on an individual, or case-by-case, basis. A personal interview of the applicant is held by an USCIS officer. The interview is non-adversarial and is designed to elicit information about the applicant's claim for refugee status.

Post USCIS Interview Processing
After the USCIS interview, those applicants who are found eligible for refugee status must satisfy medical and security criteria and must be assigned a sponsor assurance. A refugee admission number is allocated to the applicant and is then subtracted from the annual ceiling. Transportation arrangements are made through the International Organization for Migration (IOM). If the refugee is unable to finance his or her transportation costs, the refugee may be eligible for a travel loan, whereby he or she must agree to repay the cost of airfare.

At the port of entry, USCIS admits the refugee to the United States and authorizes employment. After one year, a refugee is eligible for adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident. Five years after admission, a refugee is eligible for naturalization to U.S. citizenship.

Eligibility for resettlement in the United States
Each year, the U.S. resettles a limited number of refugees. Refugees may be eligible for an USCIS interview for resettlement in the U.S. if:
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the U.S. Embassy refers them to the U.S. for resettlement, or
  • They are members of specified groups with special characteristics in certain countries as determined periodically by the United States government. (For some groups, only those with relatives in the U.S. are eligible.)
Generally, refugees must be outside their homelands to be eligible for the U.S. refugee program, though the U.S. processes application from refugees in their home countries in a few places. (currently, the U.S. has such programs in Cuba, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union).

The U.S. admits a few refugees from other countries each year under special circumstances. For further information contact United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate on the possibility of obtaining a referral to the U.S. refugee program.

Non-governmental processing agencies carry out most of the preparation case-work for USCIS interviews. These agencies
  • interview applicants,
  • help prepare the applications for the USCIS, and
  • arrange medical examinations and background checks (for security purposes) for those refugees approved by USCIS.
Following USCIS approval, the processing agency also asks for
  • the names and addresses of any relatives in the U.S.,
  • details on the person's work history and job skills, and
  • details on any special educational or medical needs of the refugee and accompanying family members, in order to determine the best resettlement arrangements for the refugee.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) generally arranges transportation to the U.S. on a loan basis. Refugees are expected to repay the cost of their transportation once they are established in the U.S.

Spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 who are with the applicant at the refugee interview will be given refugee status. If the spouse or unmarried children under the age of 21 are not with the applicant at the time of USCIS interview, the applicant will have to file a Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition, Form I-730, for each of these family members. Other relatives may qualify for resettlement in the U.S. if they meet the U.S. refugee criteria with their own claims.