Resettlement to the USA

Resource Person: Kristen Aster

Associate Director
Refugee Council USA
1628 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
Office: 202-319-2102
Cell: 202-957-8102
Fax: 202-319-2104

The US State Department publishes a fact sheet on the process of resettling refugees to the USA. Resettlement applications are usually referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (‘UNHCR’)- or, rarely, a US Embassy or a specially trained nongovernmental organization (‘NGO’) to the Resettlement Support Centers (‘RSC’). The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (‘PRM’) manages seven RSCs around the world which first receive and process refugees’ applications for resettlement to the USA. RSC staff pre-screen applicants to determine preliminarily if they qualify for one of the applicable processing priorities (see below) and to prepare cases for the Department of Home Land Security (‘DHS’)/the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (‘USCIS’) adjudication. The RSCs assist applicants in completing documentary requirements and schedule DHS/USCIS refugee interviews. If an applicant is approved for resettlement, RSC staff guide the refugee through post-adjudication steps, including obtaining medical screening exams and attending cultural orientation programs. The RSC obtains sponsorship assurances and, once all required steps are completed, refers the case to the International Migration Institute (‘IOM’) for transportation to the USA.

In FY 2011, NGOs such as Church World Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and International Rescue Committee worked under cooperative agreements with PRM as RSCs at locations in Austria, Kenya (covering sub-Saharan Africa), and Thailand (covering East Asia). International organizations and NGOs (IOM and the International Catholic Migration Commission (‘ICMC’) support refugee processing activities based in Jordan, Russia, Nepal, and Turkey covering the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Europe. The admissions program operates at a U.S. government facility in Havana, Cuba.

The Department of State funds the transportation of refugees resettled in the USA through a program administered by IOM. The cost of transportation is provided to refugees in the form of a loan. Refugees are responsible for repaying these loans over time, beginning six months after their arrival.

Eligibility Criteria

To be eligible for resettlement to the USA, applicants must meet the following criteria:

  • meet the definition of a refugee contained in Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (‘INA’)

(A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, or

(B) in such special circumstances as the President after appropriate consultation (as defined in section 207(e) of this Act) may specify, any person who is within the country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, within the country in which such person is habitually residing, and who is persecuted or who has a well founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  The term “refugee” does not include any person who ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

For the purpose of determination under this Act, a person who has been forced to abort a pregnancy or to undergo involuntary sterilization, or who has been persecuted for failure or refusal to undergo such a procedure or for other resistance to a coercive population control program, shall be deemed to have been persecuted on account of political opinion, and a person who has a well founded fear that he or she will be forced to undergo such procedure or subject to persecution for such failure, refusal, or resistance shall be deemed to have a well founded fear of persecution on account of political opinion.

  • be of a designated nationality and fall within the priority categories for that nationality in that region or be referred by a USA Embassy, UNHCR or a NGO.

Persons from nationalities that the USA designates as being of special concern for the USA resettlement program, and who fall in specific priorities (see below), can be considered for resettlement without referral by UNHCR or Embassies. Non-designated nationalities must have a UNHCR, NGO or USA Embassy referral to be considered for resettlement.

  • not be firmly resettled in any third country; and
  • not be excludable under USA law.

Section 212 (a) of the INA lists the many grounds for exclusion that ban a person from being resettled to the USA. Refugees may be excluded for the following reasons:

  • Health-related: certain communicable diseases, physical or mental disorders, and current drug abuse or addiction (health-related denials may be overcome when the problem has been successfully treated, or upon waiver at the discretion of the Attorney General).
  • Criminal activity: individuals who have committed crimes of moral turpitude, drug trafficking, multiple criminal convictions, prostitution, murder or acts involving persecution or torture.
  • Security grounds: espionage, terrorist activity, membership in Communist or other totalitarian parties, Nazi persecution or genocide, or individuals who would present a serious security threat. Membership in any organization that the State Department has deemed to be a terrorist organization is grounds for exclusion. After September 11, 2001 the USA government has enacted an additional security checks as well which can lead to formal exclusion, or may lead the USA to decline to admit a refugee on a discretionary basis.

Waivers of certain grounds of inadmissibility may be available in some cases for humanitarian purposes, to assure family unity, or when it is otherwise in the public interest. A number of exceptions provided for former Communist Party members. The grounds of exclusion which cannot be waived are membership in the Nazi Party, participation in genocide, conviction for serious crimes (such as murder, rape, or hijacking), and conviction for drug trafficking.

A final practical consideration is that a refugee must have access to USA adjudicators. This is done via circuit rides or at a post where a permanent presence is maintained. The DHS or the RSCs are as follows: Amman, Cairo, Damak, Havana, Istanbul, Kathmandu, Mexico City, Moscow, Nairobi, Vienna, and Bangkok.

Persons not at the above locations may still be referred for an interview; however, this will require a DHS/USCIS circuit ride. DHS/USCIS travel to such locations depends on the number of cases and the availability of DHS/USCIS officers. In some instances, individual cases are transferred to a DHS/USCIS post for interview.

*Afghan nationals seeking relocation to the US

The Department of State in August 2021 introduced a Priority 2 (P-2) designation granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) access for certain Afghan nationals and their eligible family members. The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan. However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States. This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not have qualifying employment, or because they have not met the time-in-service requirement to become eligible. Access to the USRAP is a critical mechanism to provide protection for these individuals. The Afghan P-2 designation permits U.S. government agencies, U.S.-based NGOs, and U.S.-based media organizations to refer Afghans (and family members: spouse and children of any age, whether married or unmarried) who fall into the below three categories for P-2 USRAP access: 

  1. Afghans who do not meet the minimum time-in-service for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) but who work or worked at any time as employees of contractors, Locally Employed (LE) Staff, interpreters/translators for the U.S. government, United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), or Resolute Support; 
  2. Afghans who work or worked at any time for a U.S. government-funded program or project in Afghanistan supported through a U.S. government grant or cooperative agreement; 
  3. Afghans who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a U.S.-based non-governmental or media organization.

For additional information on, and those interested and/or fall into any of the above categories, here is the Information for Afghan Nationals Regarding Priority 2 (P-2) Designation 

Processing Priorities

Priority categories are used to determine a refugee’s ties to the USA. The US Refugee Admission Program (‘USRAP’) has three priority levels for cases considered for resettlement:

Priority 1 – Individual Referrals 

Priority 1 (P- 1) allows consideration of refugee claims from persons of any nationality, in any location, usually with compelling protection needs, for whom resettlement appears to be the appropriate durable solution. P-1 cases are identified and referred to the program by UNHCR, a U.S. Embassy, or a designated NGO. UNHCR has historically referred the vast majority of cases under this priority. Some NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in locations where there are large concentrations of refugees have also undergone training by PRM and DHS/USCIS and were designated eligible to provide P-1 referrals.

Process for P-1 Individual Referral Applications

P-1 referrals from UNHCR and NGOs are generally submitted to the appropriate Regional Refugee Coordinator, who forwards them to the appropriate RSC for case processing and scheduling of the DHS/USCIS interview. PRM’s Office of Admissions reviews embassy referrals for completeness and may consult with DHS in considering these referrals.

A U.S. ambassador may make a P-1 referral for persons still in their country of origin if the ambassador determines that such cases are in need of exceptional treatment and the PRM and the USCIS concur. In some cases, a Department of State referral to the DHS for “Significant Public Benefit Parole” (‘SPBP’) may be a more appropriate option.

Priority 2 – Group Referrals 

Priority 2 (‘P-2’) includes specific groups (within certain nationalities, clans or ethnic groups, sometimes in specified locations) identified by the Department of State in consultation with DHS/USCIS, NGOs, UNHCR, and other experts as being in need of resettlement. Some P-2 groups are processed in their country of origin. The process of identifying the group and its characteristics includes consideration of whether the group is of special humanitarian concern to the USA and whether members of the group will likely be able to qualify for admission as refugees under U.S. law. Groups may be designated as P-2 during the course of the year as circumstances dictate and the need for resettlement arises.  P-2 group referrals are typically developed with the involvement of UNHCR, Refugee Coordinators, NGOs, PRM program officers, and other State Department officials. 

There are two distinct models of P-2 access to the program: open access and predefined group access, normally upon the recommendation of UNHCR. Under both models, P-2 designations are made based on shared characteristics that define the group. In general, the possession of these characteristics is the reason the group has been persecuted in the past or faces persecution in the future.

The open-access model for P-2 group referrals allows individuals to seek access to the program on the basis of meeting designated criteria. To establish an open-access P-2 group, PRM, in consultation with DHS/USCIS, and (as appropriate) with UNHCR and others, defines the specific criteria for access. Once the designation is in place, applicants may approach the program at any of the processing locations specified as available for the group to begin the application process. Applicants must demonstrate that they meet specified criteria to establish eligibility for inclusion. The open-access model has functioned well in the in-country programs, including the long-standing programs in Eurasia and the Baltics, Cuba, and Vietnam. It was also used successfully for Bosnian refugees during the 1990s, and is now in use for Iranian religious minorities and Iraqis with links to the USA.

The RSC(s) responsible for handling open-access P-2 applications, working under the direction of PRM, make a preliminary determination as to whether the applicants qualify for access and should be presented to DHS/USCIS for interview. Applicants who clearly do not meet the access requirements are “screened out” prior to DHS/USCIS interview.

In contrast to an open-access group, a group designation is normally based on a UNHCR recommendation that lays out eligibility criteria that should apply to individuals in a specific location. Once PRM has established the access eligibility criteria for the group, in consultation with DHS/USCIS, the referring entity (usually UNHCR) provides the biodata of eligible refugee applicants for processing. This type of group referral is advantageous in situations in which the intensive labor required to generate individual referrals would be impracticable, potentially harmful to applicants due to delays, or counterproductive. Often predefined groups are composed of persons with similar persecution claims. The predefined group referral process is a step-saver and can conserve scarce resources, particularly for UNHCR. Predefined group referrals with clear, well-defined eligibility criteria and several methods for cross-checking group membership can serve as a fraud deterrent as well, preventing non-group members from gaining access to the USRAP by falsely claiming group membership. It can also speed the resettlement process in cases where immediate protection concerns are present.

FY 2012 P-2 Designations

In-country processing programs

The following ongoing programs that process individuals still in their country of origin under P-2 group designations will continue in FY 2012:

Eurasia and the Baltics

This P-2 designation applies to Jews, Pentacostalists, and Uniates as amended (“Lautenberg Amendment”), with close family in the USA.


Included in this P-2 program are human rights activists, members of persecuted religious minorities, former political prisoners, forced-labor conscripts (1965-68), persons deprived of their professional credentials or subjected to other disproportionately harsh or discriminatory treatment resulting from their perceived or actual political or religious beliefs or activities, and persons who have experienced or fear harm because of their relationship – family or social – to someone who falls under one of the preceding categories.

Iraqis Associated with the USA

Under various P-2 designations, including those set forth in the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, employees of the U.S. government, a U.S. government-funded contractor or grantee, and U.S. media and NGOs working in Iraq, and certain family members of such employees, as well as beneficiaries of approved I-130 (immigrant visa) petitions, are eligible for refugee processing in Iraq.

Groups of Humanitarian Concern outside the Country of Origin

The following P-2 groups are already designated and, in most cases, undergoing processing with significant arrivals anticipated during FY 2012. (Additional P-2 groups may be designated over the course of the year.)

Ethnic Minorities and others from Burma in camps in Thailand

Under this existing P-2 designation, individuals who have fled Burma and who are registered in nine refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border and who are identified by UNHCR as in need of resettlement are eligible for processing.

Ethnic Minorities from Burma in Malaysia

Under this P-2 designation, ethnic minorities from Burma who are recognized by UNHCR as refugees in Malaysia and identified as being in need of resettlement are eligible for processing.

Bhutanese in Nepal

Under this existing P-2 designation, Bhutanese refugees registered by UNHCR in camps in Nepal and identified as in need of resettlement are eligible for processing.

Iranian Religious Minorities

Under this P-2 designation, Iranian members of certain religious minorities are eligible for processing and benefit from a reduced evidentiary standard for establishing a well-founded fear of persecution, pursuant to the 2004 enactment of P.L. 108-199.

Iraqis Associated with the USA

Under various P-2 designations, including those set forth in the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, employees of the U.S. government, a U.S. government-funded contractor or grantee, and U.S. media and NGOs working in Iraq, and certain family members of such employees, as well as beneficiaries of approved I-130 (immigrant visa) petitions, are eligible for refugee processing. This program is operating in Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt.

Priority 3 – Family Reunification 

The Priority 3 (‘P-3’) category affords USRAP access to members of designated nationalities who have immediate family members in the USA who initially entered as refugees or were granted asylum. At the beginning of each fiscal year, PRM, in consultation with DHS/USCIS, establishes the list of nationalities eligible for processing under this priority. The list may be modified by the PRM Assistant Secretary, in consultation with DHS/USCIS, during the year, but additions or deletions are generally made to coincide with the fiscal year.

Fundamentally, inclusion on the P-3 list represents a finding by PRM that the nationality is of special humanitarian concern to the USA for the purpose of family-reunification refugee processing. Eligible nationalities are selected following careful review of several factors. UNHCR’s annual assessment of refugees in need of resettlement provides insight into ongoing refugee situations which could create the need for family-reunification processing. In addition, prospective or ongoing repatriation efforts and U.S. foreign policy interests must be weighed in determining which nationalities should be eligible.

Previously, in order to qualify for access under P-3 procedures, an applicant must have been outside of his or her country of origin, have had an Affidavit of Relationship (‘AOR’) filed on his or her behalf by an eligible “anchor” relative in the USA during a period in which the nationality was included on the eligibility list, and have been cleared for onward processing by the DHS/USCIS Refugee Access Verification Unit (‘RAVU’).

The following relatives of the U.S.-based anchor have traditionally been eligible for inclusion on the case: spouses, unmarried children under 21, and/or parents. Qualifying anchors are persons who were admitted to the USA as refugees or were granted asylum, including persons who are lawful permanent residents or U.S. citizens who initially were admitted to the USA as refugees or were granted asylum.

In addition, on a case-by-case basis, an individual may be added on to a P-3 case if that individual: 

  1. lived in the same household as the Qualifying Family Member in the country of nationality or, if stateless, last habitual residence; and
  2. was part of the same economic unit as the Qualifying Family Member in the country of nationality or, if stateless, last habitual residence; and
  3. demonstrates exceptional and compelling humanitarian circumstances that justify inclusion on the Qualifying Family Member’s case.

These individuals “are not spouses or children, under INA 207(c)(2)(A)” and thus cannot derive their refugee status from the Principal Applicant. They must, therefore, independently establish that they qualify as a refugee, as do all other P-3 applicants.

In March 2008, in consultation with DHS/USCIS, PRM suspended P-3 processing and issued a moratorium on P-3 arrivals from certain processing locations due to indications of fraud obtained through pilot DNA testing. Further, in October 2008, PRM suspended the acceptance of AORs of all nationalities while PRM and DHS/USCIS examined how additional procedures may be incorporated into P-3 processing on a more regular basis so that the family reunification component of the program can resume, while at the same time safeguarding the integrity of the program. Revisions to the P-3 program and AOR are undergoing final review. PRM and DHS/USCIS will update the Congress when the revisions are complete, and they are prepared to resume P-3 processing, likely with a DNA relationship testing component for certain claimed biological relationships.

FY 2012 P-3 Nationalities

Upon resumption, P-3 processing will be available to individuals of the following nationalities:

Afghanistan; Bhutan; Burma; Burundi; Central African Republic; Chad; Colombia; Cuba; Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Eritrea; Ethiopia; Iran; Iraq; Republic of Congo (ROC); Somalia; Sri Lanka; Sudan; Uzbekistan; Zimbabwe.  


Under 8 CFR Section 207, a refugee admitted to the USA may request following-to-join benefits for his or her spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 if the family has become separated. Once in the USA, and within two years of admission, the refugee may file a Form I-730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition4for each eligible family member with DHS/USCIS. If the Form I-730 is approved by DHS/USCIS (signifying adequate proof of a qualifying family relationship), the National Visa Center then forwards the petition for processing to the embassy or consulate nearest to the location of the beneficiaries of the petition.

(Note: In locations where the USRAP has a significant processing operation, these cases are often forwarded to the RSC for initial processing and presentation to DHS/USCIS rather than the consular section within the embassy.)

Cases gaining access to the USRAP through an approved I-730 petition are interviewed by DHS/USCIS or consular officers to verify the relationships claimed in the petition, as well as to examine any applicable bars to status and admissibility to the USA. These interviews are not refugee adjudications. The beneficiaries are not required to demonstrate a persecution claim, as they derive their status from the refugee relative in the USA who filed the petition. Beneficiaries of I-730 petitions may be processed within their country of origin or in other locations. As the wait for processing of I-730 petitions has been substantial in some countries, USCIS and the Department of State have developed new procedures to increase the efficiency, consistency, and security of overseas processing of I-730 Refugee/Asylee Petitions, and have launched a pilot program to test them prior to worldwide implementation.

Anchor relatives in the USA may file an I-730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition and seek P-3 access (if eligible) simultaneously. In some cases, the I-730 will be the only option as the family members are still in their country of origin. It is also important to note that the I-730 or “follow-to-join” process does not allow the relative in the USA to petition for parents as does the P-3 process.


Sources: this information has been taken from ‘PROPOSED REFUGEE ADMISSIONS FOR FISCAL YEAR 2012 REPORT TO THE CONGRESS.’