An Overview of the Refugee Resettlement Program

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The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program helps immigrants fleeing persecution. U.S. immigration law does not define “persecution.” Being jailed, beaten, and/or tortured could be persecution.


The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program allows eligible refugees to move to the U.S. Under U.S. law, to qualify as a refugee, an applicant must:

  • Be located outside of the U.S

  • Not be firmly resettled in another country

  • Be admissible to (allowed to enter) the U.S.

  • Show they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a certain social group

  • Be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.

An applicant might not be allowed to enter the U.S. if the government believes they are a threat to national security or a public health concern. An applicant also might not be allowed to enter if they have been deported before. To learn more about these and other reasons why someone might not be allowed to enter the U.S., read Inadmissibility, Deportation, and Bars to Reentry.

Being persecuted based on a political opinion could be an actual political opinion an applicant has or one the persecutors believe they have.

Membership in a certain social group generally means sharing a common characteristic that is such a part of someone’s individual identity that they cannot or should not change it. Some examples are being gay or being a member of a specific tribe.

The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) determines who is “of special humanitarian concern.” It does this by using a priority system. There are three priorities of cases:

  • Priority 1: Individual cases referred to USRAP by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States Embassy, or a designated nongovernmental organization (NGO)

  • Priority 2: Group cases referred to USRAP by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), UNHCR, designated NGOs, and other experts for their clear need for resettlement (usually the group’s persecution based on shared characteristics)

  • Priority 3: Family reunification cases (spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of people allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees or asylees)


USRAP is made up of a number of governmental and nongovernmental partners in the U.S. and abroad.

The following agencies are involved:

  • Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) within the DOS


  • Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) funded by DOS

  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

  • Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services

  • International Organization for Migration (IOM)

  • NGOs

To learn more about the organizations that make up the USRAP, read the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Partners & their Roles section on the USCIS website.

The Process

Generally, the process begins when a person is referred to USRAP for consideration as a refugee. This referral is usually made by the UNHCR, which collects documents and information to make its referral. The information is then given to an RSC. The RSC interviews the person (the applicant) and enters their information into the Worldwide Refugee Admission Processing System (WRAPS). This system cross-references, verifies, and then sends the information to U.S. agencies that will do in-depth background checks.

The U.S. agencies doing the background check include:

  • The National Counterterrorism Center

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

  • The Department of Defense

  • DHS

  • DOS

  • Other intelligence agencies

Refugees are screened more carefully than any other type of traveler to the U.S. To learn more about the agencies that do the background checks, see USRAP Partners & their Roles.

The background check results are sent to DHS and DOS. A DHS officer interviews the applicant and collects biometric information (like fingerprints) abroad. The fingerprints are screened using databases from multiple agencies that have access to fingerprints gathered around the world.

The interviewing officer confirms information gathered at the RSC, and inputs any new information into WRAPS. Any new information has to be verified and more security checks will be done. Any inconsistencies will put the case on hold until they are resolved. Once all information is cleared, DHS decides whether to grant the applicant refugee status and enters the decision into WRAPS.

If DHS grants refugee status, the refugee must attend a class about American culture. The refugee must also undergo a medical exam to identify any public health concerns. The medical exam results are entered into WRAPS.

If the medical exam is clear, RSCs will determine where in the U.S. to resettle the refugee and enter the decision into WRAPS. The IOM then arranges travel for the refugee. Before being allowed to enter the U.S., the refugee could be screened by USCIS and the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight Program.

Once the refugee arrives in the U.S., someone from a domestic resettlement agency welcomes them at the airport, and the process of resettling the refugee into their new community begins. Employees or volunteers with an agency will place refugees in apartments, help them find jobs and figure out public transit routes, and offer English and cultural classes.

The refugee resettlement process usually takes between 18 and 24 months to complete.

Unfortunately, if refugee status is denied, or if the results of the medical exam ban an applicant from entering the U.S., that decision is usually final.

Application Fee and Travel Costs

There is no application fee. If a refugee cannot afford to travel to the U.S., the IOM will loan them the money (interest-free) to cover the cost. Refugees typically begin paying back their travel loans six months after arriving in the U.S.

Who Can Be Included in a Refugee Case?

A refugee case may include an applicant’s spouse, children (unmarried and under 21), and in some limited circumstances, other family members.

Same-sex spouses could be included in an application if the marriage was legal. USCIS looks to local law where the marriage took place when determining whether it is valid for immigration purposes. Same-sex partners who are not married but who are eligible for the U.S. refugee program may have their cases cross-referenced. This allows the couple to be interviewed at the same time. If approved by USCIS, the couple will be resettled in the same geographic area in the U.S.