Frequently Asked Questions
What is the definition of a refugee?
Under both international and U.S. law, a refugee is an individual who has fled his or her country of origin
because of a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group.
This definition of a refugee does not include those who flee their homes but stay within the boundaries of their country, who are classified as “Internally Displaced Persons.” It also does not include those who flee a situation of poverty, a natural disaster, or even violence, unless the violence was specifically motivated by their race, religion, political opinion, or one of the other grounds under the legal definition.
The U.S. government admits individuals for resettlement within the United States only after a thorough individual screening abroad to ensure both that they meet the legal definition of a refugee and that they in no way pose a national security or health threat to the United States. Those selected for resettlement in the U.S. are admitted with legal status and are resettled by one of nine national voluntary agencies.
What is the process for refugees coming to the U.S., and how are they vetted for security concerns?
Every person admitted through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program has undergone an extremely thorough screening process prior to being admitted to the United States.
Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted category of people entering the U.S. Candidates are screened by the C.I.A., the N.S.A., the F.B.I., the Department of Defense, and several other agencies before they arrive. They are interviewed by Homeland Security officers who have received training in identifying lies, along with intelligence briefings about the applicants’ country of origin. An office within the D.H.S. called the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate carries out open-source and classified research on candidates from certain backgrounds. Biographical and biometric information is run through numerous databases and watch lists, including Interpol’s Foreign Terrorist Fighter Database, which is informed by the collective investigative capacity of fifty-two countries. The process often takes more than a year, and any red flag is ground for rejection, with no further explanation.
The U.S. can technically accept refugees through referrals from its consulates or in specially established cases from NGOs, but in practice the vast majority are referred by UNCHR. Most of these refugees are either living in refugee camps of in urban contexts outside of camps, and all will be coming from “countries of first asylum” in the Middle East–primarily Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, possibly also Egypt and Iraq. If a refugee reaches Europe, they would then file an asylum claim there, which would invalidate any claim to need the protection of the U.S. (if rejected by Europe, the U.S. could consider the case, but would be unlikely to make a different finding, as their standards are similar to European countries under the UN Convention on Refugees).
What happens when a refugee arrives on U.S. Soil?
Each refugee is welcomed at the airport by a representative of a refugee resettlement agency, often accompanied by one or more volunteers. The resettlement agency is responsible for helping to provide initial housing, cultural orientation, assistance in accessing English language instruction, job placement, and registering children for school, among other responsibilities. Resettlement agencies generally rely on volunteers—including from local churches—to provide a relational connection to each arriving refugee that would like a friend.
The Executive Order is only for 90 days while the security of our country is given priority. Why is everyone making a big deal of this?
President Trump’s January 27 Executive Order actually contains several distinct provisions, several of which are currently on hold on the order of a federal judge, but other elements of which remain in place. The most significant elements of the executive order include:
- A 90-day prohibition on most travel for citizens of seven particular Muslim-majority countries. This ban—which is not currently in effect while the constitutionality of the order is reviewed by the court—means that people on student visas or who actually live in the US on a non-permanent employer-sponsored visa cannot make a visit to their home country, and those who happened to have been outside of the United States when the order passed would be prohibited from returning. Notably, despite language elsewhere in the Executive Order prioritizing persecuted religious minorities for special treatment, this section of the order excludes those of all faiths, including persecuted Christians or other religious minorities. At the end of 90 days, the ban could and likely will be extended at least for most of these countries: Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly recently stated that, of the seven designated countries, “it’s entirely possible one or two could come off at the end of the evaluation period.”
- A 120-day moratorium on refugee resettlement from all countries, with limited exceptions. This provision is also not currently in effect, pending judicial review, but if it were, it would mean that refugees who have completed a very thorough vetting process and been cleared for travel—with plane tickets purchased—would not be allowed to come—and they may not be able to come 120 days later, either, as some of their security clearances will likely have expired, requiring them to re-do various steps of the vetting process. This provision impacts refugees from all countries, and it would impact family members of these refugees who reside in the US, because most refugees resettled in the US are coming to be reunited to a family member.
- An indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. While President Trump has publicly expressed concern about the plight of persecuted Syrian Christians, this provision seems to clearly bar all refugees of Syrian nationality, regardless of their faith background. This provision is currently on hold, pending judicial review.
- A reduction of the total number of refugees who could possibly be considered for resettlement in Fiscal Year 2017 (which began on October 1, 2016) from 110,000 to a maximum of 50,000. Since more than 34,000 refugees have already been admitted, less than 16,000 refugees will be allowed in through September 30. 50,000 refugees are the lowest “ceiling” that has been declared by any US president since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980—in recent years, the ceiling has usually been set between 70,000 and 85,000. At a time when the world is facing the greatest number of refugees in recorded history, the US had committed to take more refugees—up to 110,000—but as a result of this change, which is not impacted by recent court rulings, 60,000 refugees’ hopes of beginning a new life in the US this year will be deferred, if not dashed permanently.
What is the effect of the reduction in the overall quota of refugees in the President's Executive Order?
The reduction in the total maximum number of refugees who could be admitted this year to the US has several effects, including keeping 60,000 refugees from being resettled this year (and thus, in many cases, spending at least one additional year in the harsh conditions of a refugee camp). This also means that individuals and groups will have far fewer opportunities to welcome refugees as an expression of their values and faiths. Furthermore, the reduction will decimate the infrastructure of non-profit refugee resettlement agencies, most of which are faith-based organizations, which will be forced to dramatically reduce staff because there will be far fewer newly-arrived refugees to serve and because of cuts to the per-refugee resettlement grant that they receive from the US State Department, which forms a significant part of the operating budget for most resettlement agencies.
What will the new legislation in the Executive order mean for refugees already in the country?
Refugees already in the US should not be directly affected by the Executive Order, unless they are from one of the seven banned countries, in which case if they were to depart the US, they may not be allowed to re-enter. But there are also indirect impacts on refugees already in the US, such as for those whose family members are refugees awaiting resettlement, as there will be far fewer family reunification cases allowed. Additionally, if budget cuts force refugee resettlement agencies to close or reduce staff, the services available to already-resettled refugees in those communities will be impacted as well. And, of course, the rhetoric about refugees that has surrounded this Executive Order has made many refugees—even those who have been in the US for a long time and may now be US citizens—to wonder if they are welcome.
What will it mean for those waiting to come?
Many of those currently in the pipeline for resettlement will likely not be able to come, particularly if the Executive Order is upheld be the courts to be constitutional. Even if it is ultimately struck down, with so many fewer slots available for resettlement, many who would have been allowed in will likely now never have that option.
How could this Administration's actions make us more unsafe?
A bipartisan group of more than 100 former national security and military officials has expressed their opinion that the Executive Order “jeopardizes tens of thousands of lives” and “will do long-term damage to our national security.” These leaders note that the particular focus on Muslim-majority countries plays into a narrative that the US is at war with Islam, or that we only value the lives of Christians—which feeds into the rhetoric of ISIS and other extremist jihadist terrorist movements, increasing the risk that additional individuals will be radicalized.
For a comprehensive look at questions regarding this issue, Human Rights First article, National Security Voices on Refugee Resettlement covers key facts and considerations.
- Refugee Resettlement Represents America’s Core Values
- Minimal Risks Associated with Admitting Refugees Are Meticulously Managed
- Refugee Resettlement Advances National Security Interests
- Halting Resettlement of Refugees Serves ISIS’s Interests
Can security and compassion co-exist?
Not only can they co-exist, they have co-existed very effectively through the US refugee resettlement program for decades. Our country actually has a remarkable history of both prioritizing the security of American citizens and extending compassion and hospitality to the persecuted and displaced. It became a campaign talking point to say that “we have no idea” who refugees resettled to the United States are, and that we have no ability to vet them, but these are simply untrue.
The reality is that refugees are already subjected to the most thorough vetting of any category of visitor or immigrant to the United States. If a refugee is referred to the U.S. government for possible resettlement—and less than 1 percent of the registered refugees globally ever are—they begin a screening process that usually takes between 18 months and three years to complete. That process is coordinated between the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense as well as the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center; it includes in-person interviews, biographic and biometric background checks, and a health screening. If there is any doubt of a refugee’s identity or even a hint of concern that they could pose a threat to national security, they are not allowed in. While any system can be improved, this vetting process has been remarkably effective. Since 1980, when the Refugee Act was signed into law, there have been about 3 million refugees admitted into the United States—and not a single one has taken a single American life in a terrorist attack. A Cato Institute analysis calculates the odds of an American being killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist at 1 to 3.64 billion per year. Do those odds really justify a full shutdown on refugee resettlement from all countries—including countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (the top country of origin for refugees last year) or Burma (the top country in 2015), from which extremist Islamist terrorism is not on anyone’s mind as a significant threat?
How can we be sure that these "refugees" are not actually terrorists seeking to infiltrate our country?
Any refugee admitted into the United States undergoes a thorough screening process led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is an absolutely vital element of the refugee resettlement program. In fact, these checks are among the most thorough background checks undergone by any immigrants or visitors coming to the United States. Other countries with resettlement programs have similar checks in place.
The U.S. system of refugee resettlement has a long history of successfully integrating refugees, having welcomed more than 3 million refugees since 1975: the vast majority of refugees are grateful to their adopted country for receiving them. Those selected for resettlement are the victims of governmental persecution and/or terrorism, not the perpetrators, and they tend to be the fiercest critics of extremist groups and tyrannical governments, having suffered at their hands. Throughout this history, there has never been a terrorist attack successfully perpetrated on U.S. soil by an individual who had been admitted to the country as a refugee. In the exceptionally rare cases where someone admitted as a refugee has been suspected of ties to groups interested in harming the United States, it has often been other former refugees from within the same ethnic community who have alerted law enforcement.
There have been reductions in refugee quotas previously, how is this more significant?
The ceiling on refugee admissions has never been set at 50,000 since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980. To lower the ceiling so dramatically at a time when the number of refugees in the world is at a historic high is counter to the values of many Americans.
How is this different from any of Obama's directives?
President Obama set the maximum number of refugees who could be admitted annually between 70,000 and 110,000 during the eight years of his presidency. President George W. Bush set the ceiling between 70,000 and 80,000. In both Administrations, unique dynamics—the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the latter case, and the post-resettlement discovery of derogatory information about two Iraqi refugees resettled in 2011—led to thorough reviews of refugee vetting processes. All refugee resettlement was halted for more than two months (but for less time than the current four-month moratorium) after the attacks of September 11; while there was never a formal “hold” on resettlement in 2011, resettlement of refugees from Iraq was slowed for several months while vetting processes were reviewed and while those already-resettled were re-vetted to ensure no additional errors had been made.
What is the difference between a refugee and an undocumented (or "illegal") immigrant?
In the United States, anyone admitted as a refugee has legal status from the moment that they enter. While these individuals could still face deportation if they committed serious crimes or otherwise violated U.S. immigration law, in the vast majority of cases they become Lawful Permanent Residents and then become eligible after five years to apply for U.S. citizenship. (Canada, Australia, Sweden and other countries have similar resettlement programs).
In the U.S., Canada, and in most parts of Europe, there are also processes to request asylum. Asylum-seekers arrive in a country either on a temporary visa or unlawfully, but claim that they meet the legal definition of a refugee described above. In most cases, these individuals are allowed to stay temporarily in the country while their cases are adjudicated: they must present sufficient evidence to a judge or other governmental official to prove that they are indeed fleeing persecution for one of the reasons elaborated under the law. If approved, in most situations they will be allowed to stay; if denied, they will generally face deportation.
In both the U.S. and in other parts of the world, many immigrants have either entered the country unlawfully or overstayed a temporary visa. While some of these individuals may have valid claims to asylum, others are driven by economic factors, such as poverty or unemployment in their countries of origin, and as such do not qualify as refugees under the law. Under U.S. law, at least, these individuals who are unlawfully present are generally not eligible for the benefits afforded to refugees such as employment authorization, resettlement support, and limited public assistance.
We have enough problems in our own country. Why help people who don't live here? Why so much focus on refugees when we have enough homeless and needy in our own communities?
Resettlement to a third country outside of the Middle East is the last resort, and the vast majority of refugees will stay within their region. For example, Turkey is currently the host country for about 2 million refugees from Syria, with more than 1 million in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan; each of these countries also has additional refugees from earlier conflicts in Iraq and other neighboring countries.
No one is proposing that resettlement to the U.S. or other countries outside of the region should be the primary solution to this crisis, as the ultimate hope is that people who were forced to flee will be able to return home when the conflict is peacefully resolved. A primary focus of our efforts is on addressing the root causes so that individuals would not be forced to flee, and we are seeking to empower local churches in the Middle East who are responding to human need.
However, given the desperation that at present has left many with no option but to flee, governments in North America and Europe can do their share by accepting a small overall portion of these refugees, relieving pressure on allies in the Middle East who are bearing the most significant weight of this crisis, while also providing support for efforts in those countries to meet basic human needs.
It is proven time and again that there is plenty of compassion and concern to go around.
Communities coming together to support the homeless or to welcome refugees is a reflection of the values that define us as Americans and people of good will. Many of those involved in welcoming refugees also volunteer for soup kitchens, contribute to programs for the homeless and routinely get involved in ongoing and pop-up community service projects.
We are spreading goodwill and making a difference in the lives of victims of war who have been displaced and torn from homes and families through no fault of their own.
Volunteers helping refugee families start new lives report that their own lives, communities, and families have been enhanced as a result.
How do we know it is safe? Who does the background checks?
The US vetting of refugees is the most rigorous screening process in the world. It often takes several years to complete because the safety and security of the American people is always the top priority.
For the safety of everyone, all refugee newcomers are screened by the appropriate federal authorities. By definition, refugees are people and families who are here because they face a threat to their safety in their former homes. As a result, refugees are far more likely to have experienced the trauma of violence, political unrest, and terrorism than the average American. They know personally the horrors of these situations and are coming here to escape them, not perpetuate them.
Once a refugee family has decided to permanently resettle and integrate into a new country and culture they can apply to the United Nations, which works with the US and other nations to assign them to a given country. When they are assigned to the US, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defense investigate the family. Refugees are fingerprinted and their identities verified using all available biometric means. They are subject to background checks, including checking for prior political or criminal activity. (More details at uscis.gov.)
Before coming to the US refugees participate in Cultural Orientation. Medical exams are conducted to make sure they carry no communicable diseases and to determine what level of U.S. healthcare they will need. The men, women, and children are required pay for their airfare; they often borrow from family or take loans. These new Americans enter our country legally, fully documented and with many skills. They rarely speak English and they have very little money; but they appreciate the things we often take for granted: Freedom, Security, Opportunities.
For more information and statistics on refugee admissions to the United States, visit wrapsnet.org.
We are happy to welcome some refugees, but we can't be overwhelmed. How many exactly are coming?
Many American cities have lost population as jobs have moved overseas; urban centers tend to be less appropriate for the families. Newcomers have helped revitalize their communities, sprucing up houses and neighborhoods, launching and supporting small businesses and improving schools. In general, areas that have welcomed new Americans have seen their fortunes rise and opportunities expand. Local economies are not "zero-sum games" where one pie has to be sliced up for everyone. Newcomers help make a bigger pie for all of us to get a piece of!
There are already people in our communities without jobs. How can we accommodate these newcomers?
Welcoming cities have seen their economies grow; these new residents create jobs wherever they live. Immigrants and refugees are very entrepreneurial; in 2011 immigrants started 28% of new businesses although they make up only 13% of the population. Their businesses employ all kinds of people, and of course, refugees are also customers for existing local businesses. An infusion of new talent and resources can be just what a struggling job market needs.
Why are you helping people who are going to end up on welfare? How long until they can stand on their own feet without any help?
We are helping struggling families move, get shelter and meet their basic needs. There are services available for them that recognize the challenges that past traumas and relocation may create. The good news is that our new neighbors share our desire for self-reliance and independence, and use our support to enter communities and start working as quickly as they can. Just how quickly depends on a lot of factors, just as it does for anyone starting fresh in a new place. Programs in place to support immigrants jump-start the process and accelerate acclimation, making it even more likely they will be successful.
My son's class is already almost 50% ESL (English as a Second Language). They get more attention than American children.
If students are not getting the attention and instruction they need to succeed, we all share in the problems that ensue. The future of our country depends on educating all of our children. Refugee families share our hopes and dreams for their children. We want to work together to make sure that all kids get the education they deserve.
Why is America always responsible for cleaning up other country's problems (i.e. foreign policy/civil war/genocide/etc)? Why aren't you helping Americans instead? Why should this be our problem?
America was founded on the premise that all men and women are created equal and have equal rights, no matter what they look like or where they come from. Our treatment of refugees reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans.
Everyone supporting refugee resettlement believes that families should stay together, that we should look out for each other, and that hard work should be rewarded. It is how we live our lives -- not what we do that defines us in this country.
Refugees that come here embody these American values. They have defied all odds to leave behind discrimination, threats, and even violence. Bringing a family here to build a better, safer life, is a quintessentially American thing to do.
Is it good to resettle people in towns so different than the ones they came from?
Most would agree that it is hard to move. To pack everything and go to a new country takes courage; but refugees do this because their lives, their homes, their schools, their jobs, have been upturned by violence and terrorism. Refugees have few choices if they are to survive and clothe and feed their families. They face untenable choices with little or no time to plan ahead.
Despite these challenges, refugees can and do make homes and deep ties in their new communities. There are countless stories of refugees and immigrants who have succeeded and surpassed expectations as independent, hard-working and assimilated members of our communities. In our experience, the more welcoming their new communities are, the better and faster newcomers feel part of their new homes, learn languages and customs, and add their own richness to their local communities with the sights, sounds, and flavors of their countries.