This article explains which refugees the U.S. government considers for refugee resettlement. It also explains the process of U.S. refugee resettlement. 

About the process to apply for U.S. refugee resettlement

U.S. refugee resettlement is also called the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). It is a legal pathway for refugees outside of the United States to move to the United States. 

Which refugees does the U.S. government consider for refugee resettlement?

Most people cannot apply directly for U.S. refugee resettlement. The U.S. government considers people for resettlement for four different reasons. This section explains those reasons.

Access to the resettlement process under one of the below listed priority categories does not mean that an individual is automatically considered a refugee by the United States government. If you are referred for resettlement under one of the below priority categories, you may be interviewed by the United States government who will determine if you can be resettled to the United States as a refugee. 

  • Priority 1: Individual basis

First, refugees can be referred to for U.S. refugee resettlement based on their individual situation in the country of first asylum. Most of these referrals come from UNHCR. Other referrals come from U.S. embassies or non-governmental organizations. These referrals are based on a refugee's needs in their country of asylum. In a very small number of cases, people who are still living in their country of origin can be referred for resettlement based on exceptional protection needs there. 

In August 2021, the United States government created  P-2 and P-1 referral pathways for Afghan nationals and their eligible family members. This is different from the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans, which you can find more information about here. Information for Afghan nationals who want more information about P-2 and P-1 referrals is here.

  • Priority 2: Membership in a designated group
    • Refugees can also be considered for resettlement if they belong to a group that the U.S. government considers to be in need of resettlement. There are two types of P-2 access to refugee resettlement, group access and direct access. 

Group access means that the U.S. government has decided people from a specific group should be referred for resettlement based on their membership in a group. People who qualify for group access cannot apply directly for refugee resettlement. The individual will need to be referred to USRAP, generally by UNHCR. 

Examples of groups that have been identified for group access in the past include:

  • Certain ethnic minorities from Burma living in Thailand and Malaysia
  • Certain Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
  • Certain Congolese refugees in Rwanda and Tanzania
  • Certain Eritreans in Ethiopia
  • Vulnerable persons in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

People in some other groups can apply directly to the U.S. government for refugee resettlement. Current groups that can apply as of July 2023:

  • Certain Iraqis, or their close relatives, who worked in Iraq for the U.S. government, a U.S. government contractor, or a U.S.-based news or nonprofit organization. 
    • Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government or who have close relatives who worked for the U.S. government can apply for the Direct Access Program. Information about refugee resettlement for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government and their families is here.
  • Iraqi and Syrian beneficiaries of approved I-130 petitions.
    • Information about refugee resettlement for Iraqi and Syrian beneficiaries of approved I-130s is here.
  • Certain Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, a U.S. government contractor or grantee, or a U.S.-based media or nongovernmental organization. Afghans must be referred by an employer. IRAP’s guide on this program is here.
  • Certain religious minorities in Iran, Eurasia, and the Baltics. This is called the Lautenberg program.
    • Information about the Lautenberg program for Iranian religious minorities is here.
    • Information about the Lautenberg program for religious minorities in Eurasia and the Baltics is here.
  • Certain Cubans living in Cuba.
    • Information about refugee resettlement for Cubans living in Cuba is here.
  • People from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with relatives in the United States 

The Central American Minors (CAM) program is a legal pathway for minor children facing persecution or danger in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to reunite with parents who are lawfully present in the United States. IRAP’s guide about this program is here.

  • Priority 3: Family Reunification

People who entered the U.S. as refugees or SIVs or who were granted asylum can apply for some relatives to join them. The relative in the U.S. can request that a Resettlement Agency file an application for a spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21, or parent. In certain cases, someone can petition for a member of their household who is not a close relative but who is accompanying the U.S. relative’s spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21, or parent. The person to move to the United States must also be a refugee. This means that they must be outside their country of nationality and have a fear of returning to their country of nationality for specific reasons. Information about resettlement for close relatives through Priority 3 is here.

  • Follow-to-Join I-730

Refugees and people who were granted asylum can apply for their spouse and unmarried children under 21 years old. The spouse and unmarried child can be of any nationality. They do not have to be outside their country of nationality or show that they are a refugee. Information about resettlement for close relatives through the I-730 process is here.

What is the process to apply for U.S. refugee resettlement?

The first steps in the U.S. resettlement process will vary based on which of the reasons above the U.S. government considers them for refugee resettlement. The links above give more information about what those steps are. This process can take many years. 

If a person is in one of the categories listed above, they still have to complete the rest of the resettlement process. They may face very long delays. Their application can be rejected. 

Once someone is referred to the U.S. government for resettlement, the U.S. government will open a file and issue the refugee a case number. The case number will have two letters and six numbers. The refugee will be contacted by a resettlement support center (RSC). These are organizations that help the U.S. government with the resettlement process. You can find the RSC for the country where you live here.

The RSC will have a screening interview with each family. In the interview, an employee of the RSC will:

  • Collect documents.
  • Ask for information about the applicant’s relatives.
  • Ask about the applicant’s work and residence history.
  • In some situations, the applicant will be asked about the harms that they have faced in the past or would face in the future in their home country.  

Refugees then have an interview with an officer from the U.S. government. More information about the USCIS interview is here.

After the interview, the U.S. government runs security checks. Refugees can wait for a very long time for an answer from the U.S. government. Information about what to do if you have long delays in a U.S. immigration process is here. The RSC might ask a refugee to complete a medical check and attend cultural orientation while they are waiting. Attending a medical exam or cultural orientation does not necessarily mean someone is approved for resettlement. Medical exam and cultural orientation can happen at any point after the USCIS interview.   

The U.S. government might approve, defer, or deny an application. The U.S. government works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to arrange travel for approved refugees. IOM will tell an approved refugee when and how they will travel to the United States.

The U.S. government might defer its decision. This means that the application is not approved or denied. It means U.S. government needs more time to make a decision.

The U.S. government might deny a refugee for resettlement. More information about how to appeal a denial is here.


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