2.3 Family Admittance to the United States

Family Admittance to the United States

Once refugees have entered a new country, they can begin the road to refugee or asylee status in the United States. This process can be arduous and often takes over a year. The first step is a Refugee Status Determination, or RSD. An authorized official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will determine if an individual is considered a refugee under international, regional, or national law. The official will then determine if the person should return to their home country, resettle in the neighboring country, or resettle in a third country (such as the United States). Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are ever resettled in a third country (UNHCR, 2015).

How do you define “refugee”?

UNHCR: The UNHCR held a Council in 1951 on the Status of Refugees, and they created a definition of refugee. Their definition is summarized in this chapter, but the full text is included on page 14 of the Council notes: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.

United States: The full definition of refugee adopted by the U.S. government comes from the UNHCR definition. You can see the U.S. definition in Section 101(a)(42) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.

United States Policies about Refugee Admittance

The UNHCR or an authorized NGO can refer a refugee for admission to the United States. Each year, the United States prioritizes particular groups to be eligible for refugee status. The current priorities are:

  • Priority 1: Cases that are identified and referred to the program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States Embassy, or a designated non-governmental organization (NGO).
  • Priority 2: Groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.
  • Priority 3: Family reunification cases (spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons lawfully admitted to the United States as refugees or asylees or permanent residents (green card holders) or United States citizens who previously had refugee or asylum status; PRM, 2018).

The United States President sets a refugee ceiling each year that identifies the number of refugees who can be granted refuge in the country (see the appendix for a brief history of United States Refugee policy). Limits for refugees allowed from particular world regions are also set. Asylees are not included in this number. These limits can be influenced by national security threats and political will. As an example, the number of admitted refugees across all refugee groups dropped from 68,925 to 26,788 following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 (Refugee Council, 2012). In the following years, the ceiling was consistently set between 70,000-85,000. The Trump Administration has cut the ceiling to 18,000, the lowest number since the creation of the refugee resettlement program. For the most up-to-date numbers of United States-admitted refugees and their countries of origin, see http://www.state.gov/j/prm/releases/statistics/

People who receive a referral for refugee status (not asylum seekers) work with a Resettlement Support Center to prepare their application. They then are interviewed by an officer from the United States Citizen and Immigration Services. Applying is free and applications can include a spouse, unmarried children, and occasionally other family members. All individuals approved as refugees are medically screened for infectious diseases, which could prevent entry to the United States. For a case example of this process, please see Ester’s Story.

In contrast, asylum seekers apply for asylum at a port of entry to the United States or apply within one year of arriving in the United States. There are two methods of seeking asylum: affirmative and defensive. In the affirmative asylum process, individuals file an application for asylum to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These individuals are free to live in the United States while their case is processed. In this past, a decision was required to be made within 180 days. However, processing time is currently estimated at 8 to 12 months (USCIS, 2019). During the application processing time or the first 180 days after filing the application (whichever is shorter), these individuals are not authorized to work. In the defensive asylum process, an immigrant who is in the process of being removed from the United States may request asylum as a form of relief. This process can happen when an immigrant 1) was apprehended in or entering the United States without documentation or 2) was denied asylum after applying to USCIS asylum officers. If an immigrant requests asylum as a defense against removal from the United States, they conduct removal proceedings in the immigrant court with the Excutive Office for Immigration Review. An Immigration Judge hears these cases and makes a final decision about eligibility for asylum (American Immigration Council, 2018).

Many defensive asylum seekers are held in jails or detainment centers until they are paroled or a decision is made about asylum. They typically wear prison uniforms and are separated from opposite gendered family. This practice has been discouraged by the UNHCR and criticized by Human Rights First (Human Rights First, 2012). After an asylee declares a desire for asylum, he or she is interviewed to determine the credibility of the danger threat in their home country. If officials determine that there is a credible threat, there is still a process that must be followed before they are granted asylee status.


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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