In the wake of the Paris massacre, many U.S. politicians have begun to question the wisdom of welcoming refugees from the civil war in Syria, out of fear of infiltration by ISIS-affiliated terrorists. The Obama administration recently announced plans to accept up to 10,000 refugees from Syria. Sen. Ted Cruz (R. Texas) has vowed to introduce a bill denying entry to those Syrian refugees on national security grounds. At least 26 governors from Alabama to Illinois have announced they would refuse to take in Syrian refugees, and there are reports of refugee families being barred from Indiana.
This raises the question: What does it really mean to take in refugees? What are the Obama administration and its critics talking about, exactly?
To get a better sense of the stakes, I spoke to Kristin Greer Love, an immigrants’ rights lawyer with the ACLU in Albuquerque, and a specialist on migrants’ rights and asylum. As Love explains, refugees and migrants (documented or not) are very different in the eyes of the law.
What is the legal framework for accepting refugees into the U.S.?
Under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (the INA), a refugee is a person who “is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
There are a couple of caveats: First, the person must be outside the United States and considered by the U.S. government to be “of special humanitarian concern.” Second, the person must be “admissible” to the United States. This means that refugees must pass through a rigorous screening and background check process before they can enter the United States. That screening process is so thorough and onerous that many refugees spend years in a third country before they can arrive in the United States for resettlement. Many of the Syrian refugees who will eventually settle in the United States will have spent years in a refugee camp.
Finally, under U.S. law, no one who “ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated” in the persecution is a refugee.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the agency that decides who is admissible as a refugee.
The president, in consultation with Congress, establishes a ceiling for the number of refugees who can be admitted to the United States each year. In the early ‘90s, the ceiling was much higher than it is now, topping out at 142,000 refugees in 1993. The Obama administration has proposed to admit as many as 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, which would include 10,000 refugees from Syria. In fiscal year 2015, the United States admitted only 1,682 refugees from Syria—about 2.4% of all the refugees who came to the United States. To put those very small numbers in perspective, as of last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had registered 4,287,293 refugees fleeing from the violence in Syria. Most of the Syrian refugees are settling in Europe and neighboring countries around Syria.
What is the legal distinction between refugees, asylum seekers and say, immigrants who cross the border into the United States?
The major difference between refugees and asylees is where they are. Asylees are people at ports of entry or in the United States. Refugees are almost always outside of the United States. Syrian refugees would be applying for resettlement in the United States while in a third country because there is no U.S. Embassy in Syria. The United States closed its embassy in Syria in February 2012 because of the violence there.
People applying for work- or family-based visas in the United States may be inside or outside the United States. People crossing the border without visas into the United States may be seeking asylum, family reunification, or better economic opportunities in the United States.
Are Syrian refugees considered a protected population eligible for asylum?
Concretely, what would be the process for Syrian immigrants in displaced persons centers in Europe? What kind of screening is required for a person entering on a refugee visa? How is that different from other immigrants?
The refugee screening process is very rigorous. In fact, refugees are the “most vetted” people coming to the United States. In many cases, the process involves several rounds of background checks, including screenings and biometric checks by the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI. In other countries, including Canada and countries in Europe, the screening process for refugees is fairly short—in Canada, it’s about four months. A refugee seeking resettlement in the United State go through a very lengthy and rigorous screening process outside the United States. According to the U.S. Department of State, the refugee screening process for takes between 18 months to 2 years—in most cases, that’s after the person is screened as being eligible for refugee status by the UNHCR.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has a great step-by-step timeline that shows how rigorous the screening process for refugees is. A refugee may go through several rounds of security clearance screenings before he or she ever gets to a face-to-face interview with a U.S. consular official, and even that interview is outside the United States. After the U.S. consular official determines that the person is eligible for admission to the United States as a refugee, the refugee must still pass through a medical screening and a final security clearance check before arriving in the United States.
Once on U.S. soil, what happens to refugees? How are they “sent” to a state?
Refugees are assigned to voluntary agencies that assist refugees with resettlement in communities in the United States under contracts with the federal government. The agencies provide “core assistance” for about one to three months after a refugee arrives in the United States: help with things like food, clothing, housing, and employment. Many of the agencies are affiliated with religious institutions in the United States and are deeply rooted in 190 communities across the United States that have historically embraced refugees. The agencies help refugees register their children in schools, apply for social security cards and benefits, register for English classes, and get access to crucial services.
The Refugee Act of 1980 established the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency within the US Department of Health and Human Services. Some ORR funds pass through state refugee agencies, which, in turn, award targeted grants to service providers in communities with refugees. States, then, do have a role in providing services to certain refugees. But after refugees are admitted to the United States, they are free, just as anyone else is, to travel and live in any state in the United States.
What kind of papers do they get? How long does it take?
One year after they are admitted into the United States, refugees can apply for lawful permanent residence. After five years in the United States, refugees can apply for citizenship.
Refugees are allowed to work and travel freely in the United States after they are admitted.
Finally, based on statutes and case law, can governors refuse to accept refugees for resettlement in their states?
No. It would violate the U.S. Constitution for any governor to prevent any group of people—including refugees—from coming to a state because of their nationality or religion. The 26 governors’ fear-mongering against refugees is hateful, cruel, and has no basis under the U.S. Constitution.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.