How to Get a Referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program

How refugees can become eligible for referrals to USRAP, where they can request such referrals, and what alternatives they should consider before choosing this route to the United States.

By , Attorney · Florida Coastal School of Law

Every year, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program or USRAP welcomes (or "resettles") a limited number of refugees into the United States. If you have fled a dangerous situation in your home country or know someone who has—perhaps a war, civil strife, or other social turmoil—you might be looking into where you can find a safe, permanent home, and whether the U.S. is an option for this.

This article describes how refugees can become eligible for referrals to USRAP, where they can request such referrals, and what alternatives they should consider before embarking on this possible route to the United States.

Who Is Eligible for a Referral to USRAP?

To qualify for a referral to USRAP (a mechanism you might also hear referred to as "Priority 1"), you must meet three conditions:

  1. refugee status
  2. resettlement need, and
  3. admissibility to the United States.

Showing That You Are a Refugee

First of all, you must appear to be a refugee—which in most but not all cases means you have left your home country and cannot or do not want to return because of past persecution or the danger of future persecution on one of five designated grounds. Note that fleeing a natural disaster or generalized strife will not qualify you as a refugee.

If, like most refugees, you have fled to another country, then chances are you have found (or been directed to) local staff of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and have officially registered your refugee status. If this has not happened, then contact a UNHCR Field Office as soon as possible.

Registering in advance should help you more quickly prove your refugee status; however, you can always try to prove it by other means at the time of your referral request.

If you are still in your home country, then you could be considered a refugee only in exceptional circumstances (for example, if a U.S. ambassador refers you personally, or if the President of the United States allows refugee processing for persons in your specific circumstances).

Showing That You Need Resettlement as a Refugee

The second condition to qualify for a referral to USRAP is that you are truly in need of resettlement. This is assumed not to be the case for most refugees, since the vast majority are expected eventually to return home (often with the assistance of UNHCR). Even those who cannot safely return home usually find a way to stay permanently in their first country of refuge.

Only as a last resort, when neither of these two options seems viable, can USRAP make a resettlement referral. Resettlement is most likely to be the only viable option for:

  • Refugees, especially women and the disabled, who are in danger of great harm (due to very high and unmanageable insecurity or violence, persistent detention or mistreatment by government officials, or the unavailability of urgently needed care for a grave medical condition) in their current country of refuge.
  • Refugees who are in danger of being compelled to go either back to their home country or to any other country where they are likely to be persecuted.
  • Refugees whose persecution in their home country involved traumatic violence (including torture).

Showing That You Are Not Inadmissible to the United States

The third condition to qualify for a referral to USRAP is that there are no apparent bars to your admission as a refugee in the United States under U.S. law. Typical grounds of inadmissibility include commission of crimes, presenting a threat to U.S. security, and the like.

Be ready to explain and prove your case

If you believe you meet the three conditions above, then you might be able to prove it by giving a credible account of your circumstances and background. However, you should do your best to obtain traceable documents (including letters) that confirm your story.

Whatever happens, tell the truth! Do not try to embellish your case, or this might catch up with you later.

Where to Request a Refugee Referral

The best way to request a referral is to contact your local UNHCR office, preferably in writing, in order to describe and document your eligibility (as explained above). You should be able to get a response in a matter of weeks, unless your case presents a genuine emergency.

If your case seems persuasive enough at this early stage, UNHCR should schedule you for further screening (including one or more interviews with its staff).

Although the United States receives more than half of all UNHCR referrals, this agency could also determine that you need to be resettled in a different country. Your preference for the U.S. will count as only one factor in its country selection. (Other factors include, for example, family ties and language.)

If you lack easy access to a UNHCR office (perhaps either because you live in a remote area, or you live in an area with an overwhelming concentration of refugees) but you have access to a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that provides assistance to refugees in your area, then you could also ask the NGO staff whether they have been authorized to make referrals to USRAP. This typically means that they have been trained, funded, and approved by the U.S. government for that purpose.

This option is rarely available (most often in urgent cases), but if it is offered to you, then expect your case to be processed with a narrower focus on the United States as your destination.

In an even smaller number of cases (often only those of individuals personally known by U.S. diplomats, such as high profile figures and current or previous employees of a U.S. embassy or consulate), applicants might be able to obtain a referral from the local U.S. embassy or consulate.

Look Into Alternative Ways to Immigrate to the U.S.

Obtaining a referral is only the beginning of the long and complicated process of seeking admission as a refugee in the United States (or elsewhere). The rest of that process is likely to last several months if not years (except in emergency cases) and bears no guarantee of success.

For one thing, the number of people who desire and are eligible for resettlement in the United States is likely to outnumber the limited number of slots available for refugee admission (and this number goes up or down year by year). In addition, even though UNHCR has a decent record of getting its referrals accepted, the final admission decision can be made only by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Therefore, if you believe that you might also qualify for immigrating to the United States on some other grounds (especially if you have relatives in the country), then you might want to consider those alternatives first.

Note further that there exist two alternative resettlement categories for refugees (called Priorities 2 and 3), neither of which requires a referral. However, these categories are limited to specially designated groups and nationalities.

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