Refugee status is a special legal protection granted to people who have left their home country for their own safety and are afraid to return. For more information about refugee status and how to apply, see Nolo's articles on Asylum & Refugee Status.
After one year of physical presence in the U.S. as a refugee, you must apply to adjust your status to a lawful permanent resident (seek a green card). (See 8 C.F.R. § 209.1.) The one-year period is calculated from the date that your I-94, Arrival-Departure Record, was issued.
NOTE: Procedures are slightly different for asylees applying for permanent residence.
Other than the fact that it's legally required, applying for your green card as soon as you are eligible is in your best interest for a number of reasons. First, seeking your green card is the next step before being able to apply for U.S. citizenship. Becoming a U.S. citizen has various benefits such as allowing you to vote, serve on a jury, travel with a U.S. passport, bring family members to the U.S., obtain citizenship for children under 18 years old, apply for federal jobs, become an elected official, maintain your U.S. residency, become eligible for federal grants/scholarship, and obtain government benefits.
Also, your refugee status and right to remain in the U.S. may be revoked if conditions in your country change or if you no longer qualify as a refugee (i.e. your ground for protection has changed).
What if significantly more than a year has passed after you have been admitted to the U.S. as a refugee, and you haven't yet applied for your green card? In many cases, USCIS will overlook such delays if other conditions are met, in particular, if you haven't become deportable andconditions in your home country haven't changed for the better. However, you cannot and should not count on this. Therefore, it is best to observe the one-year deadline, and to consult with an attorney if you already have missed it.
As a refugee, no fee is required to apply for your green card. In order to apply, you will need to complete and submit the following to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that handles immigration matters within the United States:
- Medical grounds of inadmissibility were noted at the time of your arrival in U.S. such as a communicable disease or mental disorder that poses a threat to the public.
- Your refugee status was granted by an approved Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition.
All foreign language documents included in this application packet will need to include a complete translation into English.
You must complete a separate I-485 application packet for each family member who wants to apply for a U.S. green card.
After you submit your adjustment of status application packet, USCIS will send you a notice saying that your application has been received, usually within a few weeks.
Several weeks later, USCIS will schedule you for a biometrics appointment. There, you will have your fingerprints, photo, and signature taken. Your fingerprints will be checked against U.S. law enforcement databases to make sure you haven't committed any crimes or immigration violations that would bar you from receiving a U.S. green card. This can add delays to the process, particularly if you have a common name.
Last, you will receive a written decision on your adjustment of status application. Although most green card applications do not require an interview, you may be called in for an interview if the USCIS office has any questions regarding your application or eligibility.
If your green card is granted, your "adjustment of status" date will be recorded as the day you entered into the U.S. as a refugee.
That's especially important because it means that you will already have a year of permanent residence behind you when you start counting your five years toward U.S. citizenship. And if you have young children, be sure to read Refugees: Apply for Citizenship Soon, So Your Children Under 18 Become Automatic U.S. Citizens.