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Legal Rights and Responsibilities for Refugees: Everything You Need to Know [2024]

Navigating the complex legal landscape can be a daunting task for anyone, but it is especially challenging for refugees who are new to a country and unfamiliar with its laws and regulations. 


Understanding their legal rights and responsibilities is crucial for refugees to integrate successfully into their new communities. Accurate information, often facilitated by translation and language services, is essential for refugees to fully exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities.


This guide aims to provide comprehensive information on the legal aspects that refugees need to be aware of, including asylum procedures, employment rights, and housing laws. 


Refugee vs Asylum Seeker vs Migrant 

Before delving into the specific definitions, it's important to understand the broader context. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are often grouped together in discussions about immigration, but each term has a distinct legal meaning and implications. These differences affect the type of protection and services they are eligible for and the processes they must undergo to remain in their host country.


Who is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who has been compelled to leave their home country due to persecution, conflict, or violence. They have a credible fear of persecution based on factors such as race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. 


According to United States law, a refugee is defined as an individual who:


  • Is situated outside the United States

  • Has special humanitarian concerns recognized by the United States

  • Can show they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group

  • Has not found permanent resettlement in another country

  • Is eligible to be admitted to the United States


Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection from dangers in their home country, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. Unlike refugees, asylum seekers must apply for protection within the country of their arrival or at the border.


Who is a migrant?

A migrant is a person who moves from one place to another, especially to find work or better living conditions. Unlike refugees or asylum seekers, migrants are not necessarily fleeing persecution or violence but are often driven by economic factors, family reunification, or other personal reasons.


What Are Refugee Rights?

Refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to a range of rights, both during the asylum process and after being granted refugee status. These rights are enshrined in the Refugee Convention and various human rights treaties, and the host country is responsible for upholding them. 


Key rights include protection from being sent back to their home country (non-refoulement), access to education, healthcare, housing, employment opportunities, and family reunification. These protections are designed to ensure that refugees can live safely and with dignity in their host country, helping them to rebuild their lives. 


The General Refugee Resettlement Process 

The refugee resettlement process is a comprehensive procedure designed to ensure the safety and suitability of individuals seeking refuge in the United States. This process involves several key steps and multiple agencies working together to assess and facilitate the resettlement of refugees.


  1. UNHCR Registration and Referral: The process begins with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registering individuals and assessing their vulnerability and eligibility for resettlement. Based on this assessment, UNHCR refers eligible refugees to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).


2. Prescreening by Resettlement Support Center (RSC): Once referred, the Resettlement Support Center conducts a prescreening interview and begins biographic checks to gather detailed information about the refugee's background.


3. USCIS Review and Biometric Checks: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reviews the results of the biographic checks, collects biometric data (such as fingerprints), and initiates biometric checks. USCIS officers then conduct an eligibility interview and may request additional biographic checks if necessary.


4. USCIS Adjudication: USCIS adjudicates Form I-590, the application for refugee status. No case is approved until all security check results are received and cleared, ensuring the safety and security of the United States.


5. Processing for Travel: Approved cases are processed for travel by the RSC, which includes medical examinations and securing sponsorship by a domestic resettlement agency. These agencies assist with the refugees' transition to life in the United States.


6. Security Screening Before Travel: Before refugees can board their flights to the U.S., all travel information is collected and screened via flight manifests by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).


7. Admittance to the United States: Upon arrival, CBP officers determine the admissibility of the refugee and formally admit them to the United States as a refugee.


Steps for Refugees Coming to the United States 

Once you are approved as a refugee, you will undergo a medical examination, receive cultural orientation, and get assistance with your travel arrangements, including a loan for your journey to the United States. Upon arrival, you will be eligible for medical and financial assistance. 


If you are already in the United States as a refugee and wish to bring family members who are still abroad, you can file Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition, for your spouse and unmarried children under 21. This petition must be filed within two years of your arrival in the United States, unless there are humanitarian reasons for a delay. 


Additionally, you might qualify to submit an Affidavit of Relationship for your spouse, unmarried children under 21, or parents. This form is used to reunite refugees and asylees with close relatives who have been recognized as refugees and are outside the United States. The Affidavit of Relationship gathers information about family connections and initiates the application process for relatives who may be eligible to enter the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. 


How to Work in the US as a Refugee

As a refugee, you are authorized to work in the United States from the moment you arrive. Upon entry, you will receive a Form I-94 with a stamp indicating your refugee status. Additionally, a digital Form I-765, which is your Application for Employment Authorization, will be created on your behalf. 


After your arrival, this application will be processed, and typically within one to two weeks, you will receive your Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The EAD will be sent to you via U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail, though delivery times can vary. While waiting for your EAD, you can use your Form I-94 as proof of your legal right to work.


Finding a job can be a critical step in your new life in the United States, and understanding the job market and application process can greatly improve your chances. Practical advice, such as these top tips for finding a job, can be very helpful. Additionally, for those with entrepreneurial aspirations, starting a business is another viable path to economic stability and success. 


Guidance on how to start a business as an immigrant can provide valuable insights and steps to help you get started. Whether you choose to seek employment or embark on a business venture, there are numerous resources and strategies available to support your journey.


More About Legal Rights for Refugees

Understanding the legal rights and responsibilities of refugees is essential for their successful integration into a new country. This FAQ section addresses some common questions regarding the legal status, resettlement, and rights of refugees in the United States.


Where are refugees from? 

Refugees come from various countries around the world, often fleeing conflict, persecution, or natural disasters. Major source countries include Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Venezuela, among others.


What is the legal status of a refugee?

Upon arrival in the U.S., refugees are granted a legal status that allows them to live and work in the country. They receive a Form I-94, which shows their admission as a refugee and provides the basis for their legal status.


Can refugees travel?

Refugees can travel outside the United States, but they need to obtain a Refugee Travel Document before leaving the country. This document allows them to re-enter the U.S. without losing their refugee status.


Do refugees get green cards? 

Yes, refugees are eligible to apply for a green card (permanent residency) one year after being admitted to the United States. This process involves filing Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.


Navigate Legal Rights as a Refugee in the U.S.

Navigating the legal landscape as a refugee in the United States is a multifaceted and often challenging journey. From securing work authorization to understanding resettlement procedures and family reunification options, having a comprehensive understanding of your legal rights and responsibilities is crucial. This knowledge not only empowers refugees to take full advantage of the opportunities available but also aids in smoother integration into their new communities.


Staying informed and utilizing available resources are key to successful resettlement. For those in need of translation or interpretation services, Equity Languages & Employment Services offers professional support to ensure that all legal and bureaucratic processes are navigated effectively and efficiently.


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