Of the roughly sixty million refugees worldwide, a little less than 15 million work with the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR – the agency responsible for most of the refugee referral to third countries – on their resettlement. And just a small fraction of those go through the complex resettlement process in the United States that can take up to three years and generally approves merely half of all applicants. (1)
Firstly, admission to the United States Resettlement Program USRAP is strictly prioritized. Cases referred to by the UNHCR, a U.S. embassy, or a designated NGO receive first priority (and are also the majority), followed by groups of special humanitarian concern and, lastly, family reunification cases.
UNHCR carries out its own four to ten month long vetting process before referring refugees to the USRAP. Once admitted, and if in coherence with admission ceilings, refugees are subjected to application criteria as laid out by the State Department for Population, Refugees and Migration. The latter then passes eligible cases on to USCIS, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, for adjudication, with support from Resettlement Support Centers. (2) Applicants must provide detailed biographical information including their family trees before being interviewed by an immigration officer in their country of origin. Interviewers are extensively trained in areas such as refugee law, credibility analysis, fraud detection, and country conditions research. (3)
The security clearance is perhaps the most complex part of the process. Several different agencies, from the National Counterterrorism Center and State Departments over Interpol to the FBI work in coordination and often overlapping steps to perform biometric checks, take fingerprints, and verify documents against terrorism and immigration databases. Refugees undergo clearance not only before admission to the program, but also upon arrival in the U.S. if admitted. USCIS provides a detailed description of each step here. Each and every refugee’s file is reviewed in weekly meetings which also determine other factors, such as ideal locations for resettlement based on family ties, employment possibilities or medical access for those in need.
Applicants from countries that pose an increased threat to national security undergo special security measures. Syrian refugees, for instance, are subjected to the “Syria Enhanced Review.” While the lack of staff on the ground makes vetting in these countries generally more difficult, especially in war-torn Syria, officials say that the greatly process benefits from the extensive experience with Iraqi applicants since 2007. The State Department claims that Syrians also tend to have more identity documents than other refugee groups. (4)
Once refugees are approved, the information is sent to the Refugee Data Center in New York, and one out of the eleven designated resettlement NGOs, like the International Rescue Committee, is tasked with reception and placement. Before arriving, refugees must undergo medical clearance, which can lead to exclusion from the program in certain cases, and have to participate in cultural orientation classes that prepare them for the reality of self-sufficiency in the U.S. as soon as possible. Simultaneously, the U.S. resettlement organization is required to pass an Assurance Process, in which it must give a written guarantee that it can provide basic services to the refugees and is generally prepared for facilitation. The U.S. government also provides refugees with a travel loan, which they are required to repay.
Upon arrival, refugees undergo another security clearance. Within the first thirty days, the resettlement organization assists them in administrative steps like applying for a Social Security Number, registering children in school, or signing up for English language classes.
Each step along the way, including medical screening and cultural orientation, happens without the applicants setting one foot onto U.S. soil. Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner calls the vetting process the “most stringent [one] for anyone entering the United States,” especially for refugees from designated countries of heightened security threats. In fact, just over 50% of refugees applying for USRAP actually pass the screening. (4)
In September, President Obama announced the government’s plan to raise the cap for U.S. admission of worldwide refugees to 100,000, and that of Syrians to 10,000. Barely 2000 Syrians have already been resettled since the start of the Syrian civil war. Half of them are children. The process is long, tough and stressful, but we can only imagine how much worse it must be for a person that has seen and lived the horrors of war – let alone for a child.
The family of Mohammad and Linda Jomaa al-Halabi is among the close to 2000 Syrian refugees already resettled in the United States. Read their story here on NPR. (Photo credit: Michele Keleman, NPR)
(2) USCIS: Refugee Processing and Security Screening
(3) U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
(4) How do Syrian refugees get into the U.S.? Explaining the process