Refugee Citizenship Status in the US

How Refugees Apply for Citizenship, and How It Can Be Taken Away 

Permanent Residence (Green Card) 

Refugees are required by law to adjust their status and become a permanent resident of the US one year after arriving in the US., though not all choose to do so.  If you do not apply for permanent residence, you must renew your work card yearly.

Applying for permanent residency can be completed with form 145 from USCIS. The stamp on a refugee’s passport can be used to validate this one year anniversary in the country.

If there are issues with criminal history in applying for permanent residence, form I-602 can be used to waiver the criminal history from the application (apart from crime related to terrorism, national security and drug trafficking).  All criminal records still must be supplied with the application for permanent residence, regardless if they are waived or not. Sometimes having family and community members write letters of support in reference to a refugee with a criminal record can help make a better case for permanent residency.

Filing an application for permanent residence generally costs over $1,000 but a form can be completed on USCIS’s website to waive the fee if the refugee can prove they are unable to pay it. A medical vaccine report is also needed along with the application.

After the application is turned in, the process generally takes up to eight months. However, if a person files the application along with their work card, this can help speed up the process.

After 5 years of permanent residency one can become a naturalized citizen.

Losing Residency 

Refugees can lose their residency if they commit “crimes of moral turpitude.” This can mean anything from stealing, lying while filling out official forms, and violent crime such as domestic violence. In addition, possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana can be grounds for attempting to send a refugee back to their home country.

It’s important to remind new refugees in America that the laws are different than in their home country. Some of the difference in laws apply to things such as drinking and driving (though a refugee cannot lose their status for this offense, it’s still dangerous) and domestic violence (an offense where a refugee could lose their status- especially if it’s within the first five years in the US).

If a refugee commits one of the above crimes in the first five years of being the US, they can be in danger of losing their ability to remain in the US. If a refugee has already filed for permanent residence, they have a better chance of being able to stay in the US than someone who has committed the same crimes and does not have permanent residence. If a refugee commits two of these crimes at any point in their lives, they can have their citizenship status in the US taken away.

There are international treaties such as the UN Convention Against Torture, which may be useful in helping a refugee to remain the US even if they have a severe history of violence such as domestic violence or violating orders of protection.

Refugees cannot vote until they have been naturalized as a US citizen. If they do vote unlawfully, this can be used as a case against them to send them back to their home country.

Other ways for a refugee to protect their status in the US includes paying taxes, enlisting in the selective service if they are male and reporting every change of address they have.


Refugees have the right to work and stay in the US. Refugees can also travel out of the country, but they must apply with the US government before leaving the country. If they leave the country without applying, it can be seen as abandoning their refugee status.

Refugees can petition for a child under 21 or a spouse to come to the US to be with them. Once a refugee becomes a naturalized citizen, they may petition for their parents and other family to join them in the US as well.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

ICE agreed upon a policy a while back which stated that they would stay away from sensitive areas such as schools, churches and hospitals. However, ICE has recently been in churches and schools. It’s important to know that unless ICE has a warrant to come inside, you do not need to let them into any building or home.

If ICE puts you in an immigrant detention center, you have the right to see an attorney and an immigrant judge. You should ask for them right away to talk about what you can do to keep your status in the US.

Many thanks to Kansas City’s Scott A Girard, attorney for one of Kansas City’s leading  immigrant rights law firms, for sharing this information with Kansas City’s Refugee and Immigrant Forum. 

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