Cultural Orientation for Refugees

Rights and Responsibilities

U.S. Law: Rule of Law

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U.S. Law: First Amendment Rights

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Laws in the United States are intended to protect the rights of all people including refugees. It is important that you have a basic knowledge of your legal rights and responsibilities once in the United States.

U.S. Laws

Because the United States is governed by the rule of law, there are many laws that refugees need to know. You are responsible for knowing the laws and understanding what may happen to you if you break them.

In the United States, you can be punished if you break the law, even if you did not know about the law you broke. The penalty for some offenses may be deportation (return) to your home country. For this reason, it is very important to learn and obey the laws.

There are three kinds of laws in the United States:

Federal laws, such as the laws against drug trafficking, apply to every person living in the United States.

State laws vary by state. For example, in some states you can get a driver’s license at age 16, but in others you must be 18.

Local laws apply in a particular city or county. These might include laws about noise or parking your car.

Protection against Discrimination

U.S. law prohibits discrimination, though the details of antidiscrimination laws vary from one state to another. If you are discriminated against or denied your rights because of your race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, you have the right to seek legal action.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

If you are accused of a crime in the United States, you are considered innocent until you are proven guilty. You have the right to a lawyer, who will represent you in court. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the court will pay for one to represent you.

Your Legal Status and Citizenship

Refugee Status

For your first year in the United States, you will have refugee status. During this time you should carry a copy of your I-94 and a government-issued photo identification card with you at all times as proof of your legal status. While you have refugee status, you may not travel outside the United States without permission. Keep your original documents in a safe place.

As a refugee, you can do the following:

  • Travel anywhere within the United States. (Remember, if you move, you are required to notify U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within 10 days of changing your address.)
  • Buy property.
  • Attend school.
  • Sponsor your spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age. If you wish to have your spouse or children join you in the United States, your resettlement agency can explain what to do.

Things you cannot do while you have refugee status:

  • You cannot obtain a U.S. passport, join the military, vote in elections, or work in a government job that requires U.S. citizenship.
  • You may not travel outside the United States without permission from USCIS, the government agency in charge of immigration.
    • If you must travel overseas, your resettlement agency can explain how to ask for permission.
    • If you return to your country of origin while you are a refugee, you might not be permitted to re-enter the United States.

Permanent Residency

After one year in the United States, you must apply to become a lawful permanent resident (LPR), or ‘Green Card’ holder. This adjustment of status is very important: it is required by law, and it is also the path to U.S. citizenship.

For additional information on immigration requirements, consult your resettlement agency and a staff member can assist you or refer you to someone who can.


After four years and nine months as a permanent resident, you can apply for citizenship. USCIS or your resettlement agency can tell you what you need to do to become a citizen. Among other things, you must show good moral character and a basic knowledge of English and U.S. history and government. Immigrants or refugees who become citizens have the same rights and privileges as citizens born in the United States.

General Rights & Responsibilities

  • You must learn and know the laws.
  • Everyone who lives in the United States has basic civil rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and the freedom to peacefully assemble.
  • You can work in the United States.
  • Citizens can vote in elections.
  • Job discrimination is illegal in the United States. No one can refuse to give you a job because of your race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
  • Public services and benefits are available to those who are eligible for them.
  • If you break the law, your immigration status could be affected.
  • You can move to a new community.
  • If you move to a new home, you must fill out an USCIS change of address form.
  • Men between 18 and 25 years of age must register for the Selective Service.
  • You need to pay your own income taxes. You must fill out and send an income tax form to the government every year. You can fill out the form yourself or find someone to help you.
  • You must have a driver’s license and insurance to operate a vehicle.
  • People in the United States may not drink or buy alcohol until they reach the age of 21.
  • Parents must learn legal ways to discipline their children.
  • It is illegal to leave children without adult supervision.
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