Refugee Green Card

Refugees are not automatically given green cards; you must follow a unique set of rules to apply for one. The refugee green card application is free, but each family member will have to apply individually. Also, refugee travel documents are no longer free of charge. You will have to pay separately for each person.

Background Image: Towel, El Salvador

Published: 10-4-2019

Immigration law is always changing. We will do our best to keep our website as up-to-date as possible, but the latest information might be more readily available at These pages were written to help you better understand your legal options, however, none of the information published by Catholic Charities Milwaukee should be considered legal advice. If you plan to open your own immigration case, hire an immigration attorney to consult you personally.

“For the Christian, acceptance of and solidarity with the stranger are not only a human duty of hospitality, but a precise demand of fidelity itself to Christ’s teaching. For the believer, caring for migrants means striving to guarantee a place within the individual Christian community for his brothers and sisters coming from afar, and working so that every human being’s personal rights are recognized.”

Pope John Paul II, From the Vatican, 9 November 1997, the twentieth year of the Pontificate

Pope John Paul II, Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F059404-0019 / Schaack, Lothar / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (]

Pope John Paul II, Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F059404-0019 / Schaack, Lothar / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (]

Refugee Green Card Application

Requirements to Apply

Refugees are people who have fled their home country because of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or something called “particular social group”. Specifically, refugees are granted permission to come to the United States before they arrive in the country. People often confuse refugees and asylees. Both refugees and asylees must show a reasonable fear of persecution, however, asylees apply for protection after they arrive in the United States while refugees apply for, and are granted protection while they are still living outside the United States.

You must be living in the United States as a refugee for one year before you can apply for lawful permanent residency (also known as a green card).

Application Details

The refugee adjustment of status application is free of charge. It is 18 pages long, and requires you to share a lot of personal details. It is important that you try to be as accurate as you can. 

It will ask where you have lived and the dates that you lived there. It will also ask where you have worked and the dates that you worked there. Some questions may seem rude or offensive. For example, you will be asked if you are a prostitute, if you take drugs, or if you have committed any crimes. Immigration asks you all these questions to make sure there is no reason that the United States should not give you a green card.

If you have had any problems with the police, don’t lie. Tell immigration what happened with the police. If you are arrested, it is also really important that you insist your criminal defense attorney works with an immigration attorney who understands how immigration deals with crime. Even though the State of Wisconsin might dismiss a criminal charge, Immigration often still treats it as a criminal conviction.

Also, when you answer questions on the green card application regarding being arrested or detained by law enforcement, your answer should include incidents that happened anywhere in the world. For example, if you were detained for being in another country without permission, you should include that on your application.  

All refugees who are 14 years or older must sign their own green card applications. A parent may sign the application for their child under the age of 14, but once the child turns 14, they must sign for themselves.

Civil Documents by Country

The U.S. Department of State provides a list of acceptable documents on their website for each country that has a relationship with the United States. For example, if you are looking for what documents you need to prove a marriage, start by selecting your country and then scroll until you see the marriage certificate section. There you will find the documentation you need to give U.S. Immigration that is specific to your country. This resource can also be helpful if you need to find out how to get a copy of a divorce, birth, adoption, or death certificate from your home country.


You MUST tell Immigration if you move or change your address. The post office will not forward any mail from Immigration. One advantage to having an attorney is that Immigration should send a copy of everything to your attorney, too. You can use an online form or a hard copy version to notify Immigration of your address change. When Immigration sends you a confirmation that they received your change of address, make sure you print a copy to keep for your records.

Medical Examination​

The refugee adjustment of status application also requires a medical examination. You must go to a particular type of doctor called a designated civil surgeon. You can find one near you through You will not receive the same kind of medical examination as other green card applicants because you would have already had an examination before you came to the United States. You will, however, want to make sure your vaccinations are up to date before having your medical examination.

The timing can be a challenge because your medical examination must be signed by a civil surgeon no more than 60 days* before the date the adjustment of status application is filed. Additionally, your medical examination is good for only two years. If more than two years pass before your application is approved, you will have to undergo, and pay for, another medical examination. For this reason, you might want to wait to schedule your medical examination until Immigration asks you for it. This will help you avoid paying for it twice. These are the details that a good immigration attorney can help you coordinate.

*The laws dictating the dates and timeframes change regularly. Please check with for the most up-to-date information. 

After You Apply

What to Expect

Once you apply for your green card, Immigration will send you a receipt to confirm that they received your application. Then they will send you a notice with an appointment date and time to have your photo and fingerprints taken. This photo will appear on your green card. If you cannot make the appointment, you must inform Immigration in writing and ask for a new date for fingerprinting.

Immigration rarely schedules an interview for a refugee trying to get a green card. If you have a record of any criminal arrest, Immigration might schedule an interview, but it does not mean that your green card will be denied or that you will be arrested. It just means Immigration wants more information from you.

Date on Your Refugee Green Card

When a refugee gets a green card, the date of issuance on the green card is backdated to the date that he or she entered the United States. For example, Rose enters the United States as a refugee in 1999, but then waits twenty years, and applies for her green card in 2019. When her card comes, it will state that she received it in 1999 because it is backdated to when she first came here instead of when her status changed. Because of this backdated time on her green card, Rose can immediately apply for citizenship. Generally, one must be a lawful permanent resident for five years before you can apply for citizenship, but Catholic Charities has helped clients who have similar stories to Rose’s.

Asylees have a similar rule, however, their cards are only backdated for a maximum of one year.


Your green card will be valid for ten years, but it is never too early to start studying for citizenship. Becoming a citizen helps ensure that you can keep your public benefits, which are only available for limited amount of time for refugees. You can also apply for a U.S. passport, which means you won’t have to worry about getting a refugee travel document if you want to travel outside of the country. To become a citizen, most people need to pass both an English test and U.S. Civics test. Catholic Charities offers free citizenship classes with individual tutors to help you prepare for these tests. You won’t be embarrassed or pressured.

Seek the Help of a Good Lawyer

We Can't Stress This Enough

These pages are intended to help you understand what you are looking for – not to help you complete any of these applications alone. Immigration law is detailed and complicated, and we urge you to rely on a well-trained lawyer for help. Find an immigration attorney who will give you an honest assessment of your case and guide you through the processes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Refugee Green Card FAQ

Some criminal convictions might make it difficult for you to get a green card.

Your green card will be valid for 10 years.

Just like other immigrants, a refugee can lose his or her lawful permanent residence status. As a refugee, Immigration can put you into deportation and an immigration judge can order that you be deported. The most common reason that refugees are put into deportation is a criminal conviction. Domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, drug possession or dealing, and theft are all crimes that can put someone into deportation.

Sometimes Immigration cannot physically remove refugees from the United States because their home country will not take them back. However, those refugees would still lose their residency and access to any public benefits. A refugee with a deportation order usually has to report periodically to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and will also need a work permit to work lawfully.

Until they are 14 years old, you can sign a green card renewal application for your children. Once children turn 14, they must sign for themselves. 

Additional Resources

Becoming a U.S. citizen gives you many advantages over being a lawful permanent resident. In addition to a long list of personal requirements, you must fill out a form and pay a fee. Ultimately, your best chance at success will be through the help of an honest and experienced immigration attorney.

Refugees coming to the United States must make several adjustments, and often have questions about green cards, citizenship, and work permits.

Family based immigration helps unite families who want to be together. However, not all relatives are able to apply for one another. Before you attempt to petition for a family member, it is important to understand if you can petition through the Immediate Family Member of a U.S. Citizen or if you must use the Priority System.