What is a Refugee Travel Document (Form I-131)?
A refugee travel document is an official travel document, similar to a passport, that is issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to refugees or asylees, allowing them to travel abroad and return to the United States. Green card holders who got their permanent residency as a result of their refugee/asylum status also need to apply for a refugee travel document to travel abroad. While the green card itself grants the holder the right to enter the United States (provided they have been abroad for less refugthan 1 year), a refugee travel document is usually required to enter other countries in lieu of a passport.
Applicants for asylum (i.e. individuals who have submitted an I-589) cannot obtain a Refugee Travel Document and instead have to apply for an Advance Parole Document, which allows them to return to the United States without a visa after traveling abroad.
Individuals with asylum or refugee status and asylum applicants who travel out of the U.S. without a refugee travel document or Advance Parole Document are at risk of being denied re-entry to the United States and may even be placed in removal proceedings before an immigration judge.
How Do I Apply for a Refugee Travel Document (Form I-131)?
Lawful permanent residents in the U.S. typically do not need a refugee travel document for international travel since their green cards allow them to return to the U.S. from an overseas trip, provided they have been abroad for less than 1 year. However, most refugees or asylees who have obtained green cards, are not able to apply for passports from their home countries or may choose not to travel as a national of that countries. A refugee travel document allows such people to travel abroad, working essentially as a passport.
To apply for one you must file Form I-131, Application for Travel Document with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The following documents should be included with the application:
- Evidence of your asylee or refugee status
- A copy of official photo identification with the applicant’s name and date of birth on it (such as a valid driver’s license or foreign passport)
- The necessary filing fee (and additional biometrics fee if the applicant is between the ages of 14 and 79)
- Identification documents in a foreign language must include a complete translation into English and a certificate of translation
Additional family members who have derivative asylum or refugee status (or have obtained green cards based on asylum/refugee status) must also file separate Form I-131 applications and provide all the necessary supporting documents.
Some weeks after submitting the form, applicants will receive a written notice to visit their local USCIS office for a biometrics appointment, where they will be fingerprinted and photographed. The applicant might also get a notice from USCIS asking for additional information/documentation.
How Long Does an Application for Refugee Travel Document (Form I-131) Take? How Long Are They Valid?
The application for the travel document might take anywhere from two to six months. It makes sense to apply for it several months before you plan to travel outside the U.S.
Applicants must be physically in the U.S. when they file the Form I-131 application. They may, however, leave the U.S. before receiving the travel document (provided they complete their biometrics appointment before they leave). Form I-131 has a provision for requesting the travel document be sent to a U.S. embassy, consulate, or Department of Homeland Security office abroad.
Overseas travel is not recommended for individuals who have submitted their Form I-131 applications but have yet to receive a valid refugee travel document. While nothing stops them from travelling abroad, they run the risk of being denied re-entry to the U.S. if their Form I-131 application is denied by USCIS and they did not procure a travel document. A refugee travel document will expire one year from the date when it was issued and cannot be extended. When planning an overseas trip, the refugee travel document holder must ensure that it does not expire before they try to reenter the United States.
Do Not Travel to the Country of Persecution
Individuals with refugee/asylum status in the U.S. must not travel back to the country where they claimed persecution in their refugee/asylum application. Even if they have a valid refugee travel document, they may be denied re-entry to the U.S. if they have travelled to this country. In such instances, USCIS, the State Department, or other immigration agencies may JunJdecide that the individual is no longer at risk of persecution from their country of origin and no longer needs the protection of the United States. Lawful permanent residents who got their status from being a refugee or asylee could also lose their green card if they return to the country from which they claimed they needed protection.
Do you need to apply for a Form I-131 Application for Travel Document? Mistakes in the application can cause delays and rejections. Contact an experienced immigration attorney to prepare and file the paperwork properly so you get the best possible outcome.