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 on eligibility and how to apply, see Nolo's articles on Asylum & Refugee Status.
After one year of physical presence in the United States 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 is legally required, applying for your green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) as soon as you are eligible is advantageous for a number of reasons.
First, seeking a green card is the next step before being able to apply for U.S. citizenship. Becoming a U.S. citizen has numerous benefits, such as avoiding the possibility of deportation and 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 United States may actually be revoked (taken away) if conditions in your country change or if you no longer qualify as a refugee (i.e. your ground for protection has changed). This is a risk even at the stage of applying for a U.S. green card, but the risks tend to get even greater as the years go by. If, for example, peace accords are signed in a civil war that was the basis for your fleeing the country, and the place gradually settles down, every year that passes makes your claim to lawful permanent residence weaker, and increases the chances that your refugee status will be taken away.
What if significantly more than a year has passed after you have been admitted to the United States 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 and conditions 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:
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 or months 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 from USCIS on your adjustment of status application. Although most green card applications do not require an interview, you could 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 not as the decision date, but rather the day you entered into the United States as a refugee. That's especially important because it means that you will already have at least a year of permanent residence behind you when you start counting your five years toward U.S. citizenship.
U.S. citizenship status offers the highest possible level of protection to refugees, such as protection from the possibility of deportation (see, for example, Grounds of Deportability: When Legal U.S. Residents Can Be Removed). U.S. citizens are also allowed to petition for additional family members to join them in the U.S., as described in Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories. (A particularly common concern among refugees is elderly parents who were not processed as refugees. A U.S. citizen aged 21 or older may petition for parents to immigrate to the U.S. as immediate relatives. )
The application process, called "naturalization," involves applying through USCIS on Form N-400, passing English language and U.S. civics tests, and attending an oath ceremony. (See Who Can Apply for U.S Citizenship.)
Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen normally requires waiting at least five years after becoming a U.S. lawful permanent resident, as described in When Can I Apply for U.S. Citizenship? But as alluded to above, the five years are counted starting when you entered the United States as a refugee. Therefore you need to have only four years of permanent residence (though your green card will backdate your permanent residence date to when you entered the United States, so don't get confused and try to take an additional year off your eligibility).
A refugee child, by contrast, may instantly "derive" U.S. citizenship when the parent naturalizes, and thus avoid the naturalization process. It happens automatically, by operation of law. The child not need file anything to "claim" their U.S. citizenship (though they might wish to apply for a document proving it, as described below). But not every refugee who entered the United States as a child qualifies for derived citizenship. This is worth taking a careful look at, because a child who does not get derivative citizenship will (assuming the child wants to become a U.S. citizen) needs to apply to naturalize as an adult.
If you're a refugee adult with children who you brought to the United States, it's a good idea to naturalize as soon as possible: specifically, while your minor children remain under age 18. Because one of the requirements for derivation of citizenship is that the child be under 18 when you naturalize, they will lose this important opportunity if you wait too long.
Plus, you'll save your children money by allowing them to avoid the naturalization process. If all of your children are under 18 when you naturalize, then for the price of one naturalization application, your children can all become citizens. (Nevertheless, unless they qualify for a fee waiver, they will still need to pay fees in order to obtain proof of citizenship, either in the form of a U.S. passport or a certificate of citizenship.)
Because there is no application process for deriving U.S. citizenship, there is no automatic way to prove that one has, in fact, become a citizen. However, a child can, with the right evidence, either apply to USCIS for a certificate of citizenship (using Form N-600) or to the Department of State for a passport.
Under current U.S. immigration regulations, a child derives citizenship automatically upon satisfying these conditions, in any order:
It doesn't matter who entered the U.S. first, the parent or the child. Interestingly, a child refugee who enters the U.S. at some time after the parent may in fact become a U.S. citizen in less time than the parent. If a child refugee enters the U.S., obtains a green card a bit over a year later, and the parent naturalizes soon after, then the child could become a citizen within less than two years of entering the United States.
But if the order is changed, and the child refugee enters the U.S. first, then the parent naturalizes, and then the child becomes a permanent resident, the child will still derive citizenship from the parent.
What if the child has already turned 18 by the time you are reading this, but otherwise met all the criteria described above? In such a case, so long as the child was under 18 when either parent naturalized, the child became a citizen, even without anyone knowing it at the time.
Because refugees receive a green card that is "back dated" (to the date of having entered the U.S. as a refugee, a child could, potentially, show derivation of citizenship even without having applied to become a permanent resident before age 18. That's because the when the former child refugee is approved for a green card, it will show that the date of becoming a permanent resident was one year earlier.
The regulations for derived citizenship eligibility are different for immigrants who turned 18 on or before February 18, 2001, and they also changed multiple times before that. The majority of current refugee children will be covered by the newer regulations.
If you have additional questions, or want help preparing an application for adjustment of status, U.S. citizenship, or some other immigration benefit, it's a good idea to get counsel from an immigration attorney.