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​Frequently Asked Questions

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What is a refugee?

​A refugee is any person who is outside the country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside the 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 for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Individuals and their family members granted refugee status overseas by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are brought to the United States for resettlement by the U.S. Department of State. Through a wide range of programs and benefits, the U.S. Department of State, federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, and "Voluntary Agencies" (VOLAGS) assist refugees' resettlements and integration into the U.S. Refugees are eligible to receive ORR benefits and services from the date of arrival in the U.S.

How long has the United States (and Pennsylvania) been resettling refugees?

​Since 1975, the U.S. has resettled more than three million refugees. Most refugees come from Vietnam or the former Soviet Union, although more than 70 nationalities are represented. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, annual admissions figures have ranged from a high of 207,116 in 1980, to a low of 27,100 the year following September 11, 2001. Seventy thousand refugees were admitted in both 2013 and 2014.

Who is eligible to be a refugee?

​The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the international mandate to provide refugee assistance and to determine if resettlement in a third country — be it the United States or another country — is the right solution.

Less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled in a third country. UNHCR uses six criteria to determine if resettlement is appropriate. For more information on UNHCR standards and criteria for determining resettlement as the appropriate solution for refugees, please refer to the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook.

You must receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration as a refugee. For more information on the referral criteria, see the USRAP Consultations and Worldwide Processing Priorities website.

There is no fee to apply for refugee status.

What criteria must be met to be a refugee?

​The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to make this decision. Under U.S. law, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five "protected grounds":

Religion, Political Opinion, Race, Nationality, or Membership in a Particular Social Group

Furthermore, a refugee must be deemed admissible to the U.S. and not be firmly resettled in a third country. For a list of grounds that would disqualify a refugee from resettling in the United States, please visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.


Where are refugees resettled in the United States (and Pennsylvania)?

​Forty-nine of the 50 states resettle refugees. In Pennsylvania, there are primarily five regions in which refugees are resettled: Pittsburgh, Lancaster/Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Allentown/Scranton, and Erie. Within each region, there are multiple voluntary organizations (VOLAGs) that are responsible to sponsor refugees and aid in the resettlement and placement process.

Can refugees work?

​Refugees may work immediately upon arrival to the United States. When a refugee is admitted to the United States, they receive an I-94 form containing a refugee admission stamp. Additionally, an I-765 form (Application for Employment Authorization) is filed to receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). While waiting for the EAD, a refugee may present the Form I-94 and arrival/departure record to the employer as proof of permission to work in the United States.

Do refugees receive public benefits?

​Refugees are eligible, due to their vulnerable status, for federal benefits such as Medical Assistance (Medicaid), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps). There are also special types of assistance available to refugees who do not meet the criteria for the above listed benefits. Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) and Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) exist to bridge a gap between initial settlement and the achievement of self-sufficiency. These programs are limited to eight months from the date of refugee entry. 

In an attempt to keep refugees off of public benefits, there is a cash diversion program called the Matching Grant Program. This is an alternative to public cash assistance providing services to enable ORR-eligible populations (in addition to refugees, asylees, Cuban and Haitian entrants, certain Amerasians from Vietnam, victims of severe forms of trafficking, and special immigrant Visa holders (SIVs) are also eligible for the same types of services) to become economically self-sufficient within 120 to 180 days.

Services required under this program include, but are not limited to, case management, employment services, maintenance assistance and cash allowance, and administration. Self-sufficiency must be achieved without accessing public cash assistance. Enrollment is available to all ORR-eligible populations meeting the minimum employability requirements as defined under the ORR's program guidelines; however, enrollment must occur within 31 days of becoming eligible to ensure adequate services are provided and self-sufficiency is achieved and maintained within the period of eligibility.


What is a public charge and when does it apply?

​For purposes of determining inadmissibility, "public charge" means an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense. Several factors must be considered when making a determination that a person is likely to become a public charge. Under Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an individual seeking admission to the United States or seeking to adjust status to that of an individual lawfully admitted for permanent residence (Green Card) is inadmissible if the individual, "at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge." Public charge does not apply in naturalization proceedings. If an individual is inadmissible, admission to the United States or adjustment of status is not granted.

How is it determined whether someone is likely to become a public charge for admission or adjustment purposes?

​Inadmissibility based on the public charge ground is determined by the totality of the circumstances. This means that the adjudicating officer must weigh both the positive and negative factors when determining the likelihood that someone might become a public charge. At a minimum, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer must consider the following factors when making a public charge determination:

  • Age
  • Health
  • Family status
  • Assets Resources
  • Financial status
  • Education and skills

The officer may also consider any affidavit of support filed on behalf of the individual under Section 213A of the INA. Presence or absence of a single factor cannot be the sole criteria for determining inadmissibility as a public charge, (unless that factor is the absence or insufficiency of an affidavit of support when required by the laws and regulations governing a specific immigration benefit, such as certain family-based adjustment of status applications).


Does public charge apply to me?

​For benefits adjudicated by USCIS, whether a person is likely to become a public charge is usually considered when someone is trying to become a permanent resident (get a Green Card). It is also considered when someone applies for certain non-immigrant or other temporary benefits, for example by extending non-immigrant status within the United States. There are certain groups of people who are either exempt from public charge, or may get a waiver for public charge when applying for a Green Card or other benefits with USCIS. These include:

  • Refugees
  • Asylum applicants
  • Refugees and asylees applying for adjustment to permanent resident status
  • Amerasian Immigrants (for their initial admission)
  • Individuals granted relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA)
  • Individuals granted relief under the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act (NACARA)
  • Individuals granted relief under the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA)
  • Individuals applying for a T Visa
  • Individuals applying for a U Visa
  • Individuals who possess a T visa and are trying to become a permanent resident (get a Green Card)
  • Individuals who possess a U visa and are trying to become a permanent resident (get a Green Card)
  • Applicants for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
  • Certain applicants under the LIFE Act Provisions


What publicly funded benefits may not be considered for public charge purposes?

​Non-cash benefits (other than institutionalization for long-term care) are generally not considered for purposes of a public charge determination. Special-purpose cash assistance is also generally not considered for purposes of public charge determination. Non-cash or special-purpose cash benefits are generally supplemental in nature and do not make a person primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Therefore, past, current, or future receipt of these benefits do not impact a public charge determination. Non-cash or special purpose cash benefits that are not considered for public charge purposes include:

  • Medicaid and other health insurance and health services (including public assistance for immunizations and for testing and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases; use of health clinics, short-term rehabilitation services, and emergency medical services) other than support for long-term institutional care
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Nutrition programs, including Food Stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, and other supplementary and emergency food assistance programs
  • Housing benefits
  • Child care services
  • Energy assistance, such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Emergency disaster relief
  • Foster care and adoption assistance
  • Educational assistance (such as attending public school), including benefits under the Head Start Act and aid for elementary, secondary, or higher education
  • Job training programs
  • In-kind, community-based programs, services, or assistance (such as soup kitchens, crisis counseling and intervention, and short-term shelter)
  • State and local programs that are similar to the federal programs listed above are also generally not considered for public charge purposes. Please be aware that states may adopt different names for the same or similar publicly funded programs. It is the underlying nature of the program, not the name adopted in a particular state, which determines whether or not it should be considered for public charge purposes. In California, for example, Medicaid is called "Medi-Cal" and CHIP is called "Healthy Families." These benefits are not considered for public charge purposes.

In addition, and consistent with existing practice, cash payments that have been earned, such as Title II Social Security benefits, government pensions, and veterans' benefits, among other forms of earned benefits, do not support a public charge determination. Unemployment compensation is also not considered for public charge purposes.


How can I learn more about public charge?

​For the complete published policy on public charge refer to the Published Policy on Public Charge: INA Sections 212(a)(4) and 237(a)(5).

I keep seeing statistics in the media revealing the religion of refugees in the United States. Do you actually ask people what religion and is that data tracked and public?

​Refugee religion is a question during the face-to-face UN interview process. This data is tracked by the Department of State, and reports may be requested in real-time at the Refugee Processing Center web site. There is no "religious test" in place to administer to refugees.

Is there a limit to the amount of refugees the United States can accept?

​Yes. Each year the president meets with advisors to consider the refugee limit. This year, President Obama increased the refugee limit from 70,000 in 2014-15 to 85,000 in 2015-16. The limit is dependent on worldwide conditions that range from man-made to natural catastrophes or humanitarian crises. In 2008, President George Bush raised the refugee limit to 80,000; this is 5,000 less than the present limit.

Where does the money come from to resettle refugees in Pennsylvania?

​The money comes initially from tax payers and is them appropriated by Congress to both the US Department of State and Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

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