FAQs about Refugee Resettlement in the US

This post will be updated as new questions and concerns arise. Please comment if you have any additional questions or concerns or if any links are out of date.

What is a refugee?

The term “refugee” can be used in a couple of different ways.  Its broadest meaning is someone who has been forced to flee their home because of persecution, war, natural disaster, etc.  However, it also has a narrower definition when talking about refugees entering the US.  A person is considered a refugee if they have fled their country for similar reasons listed above and have been formally recognized as a refugee by the UN.  They are defined and protected in international law and have very specific rules regarding their movement.  Most refugees return home when the conflict ends, and most of the rest stay in their host country permanently.  Fewer than one percent of refugees apply for resettlement in a third country. In addition, the US also allows some other immigrants to receive refugee benefits, such as Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the US military and enter on Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) http://www.unrefugees.org/what-is-a-refugee/

What is an asylee?

While asylees might sound a lot like refugees when the word is used informally, they actually have a very different legal status.  UN-defined refugees cannot enter the US as asylees and must go through the regular refugee process. An asylee is someone who arrives in another country and asks for asylum.  Asylees have a very different entry process than refugees. https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/asylum/affirmative-asylum-process

What is the process for entering the US as a refugee?  

Basically, a refugee who cannot return home and whose host country cannot accommodate her permanently can apply for resettlement.  The UN chooses which country would be the best fit for her based on the requirements of the country and begins the process of gathering data and documents. The UN has extensive experience working with refugees since the end of WWII and is used to processing people who have little documentation, something that is common to many refugees, although Syrian refugees generally have more documentation than most refugee populations. If the US is selected as a place for the refugee to resettle, the vetting and screening begins. Syrian refugees get additional review from DHS that other refugees don’t have to go through after Congress voted to increase the vetting at the end of 2015.  Background checks, fingerprinting, medical screening, and interviews all happen over the course of many months.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states

How long has the US been resettling refugees? Where have they come from?

The current US refugee resettlement program began in 1975 when approximately 135,000 refugees from Asia, mostly Vietnam, were resettled in the US. Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980. That Act formalized the definition in US law of a refugee and created guidelines for refugee resettlement. The largest number of refugees entering in a single year was 207,000 in 1980. Over 3 million refugees have been resettled in the US since 1975 and most have been from the former Soviet Union and Vietnam. Refugee resettlement is a long tradition in the US and the program has been very successful.
https://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra/ http://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/

How is refugee resettlement funded?

States provide money, medical care, and social services for refugees. In addition, Congress appropriates funds that are distributed to the national network of refugee affiliates through a matching program. Agencies receive $2 federal dollars for every $1 they raise, up to $2,200 per refugee. You can use the links below to learn more or to see how agencies use their money. See here for a list of the agencies.

How many refugees are entering the US now?
Around 85,000 refugees total were accepted in FY 2016 and you can check the wrapsnet links below for lots of historical data. As of January 27, 2017, all refugee admissions to the US have been halted for 120 days and Syrian refugee resettlement has been banned indefinitely. http://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/ Where do most refugees come from now? In FY 2016, 84,995 refugees from 79 different countries were resettled in the US. Over 70 percent were from five countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo (16,370), Syria (12,587), Burma (12,347), Iraq (9,880), and Somalia (9,020).

Are most of the refugees Muslim? In FY 2016 46% of refugees admitted to the US were Muslim. 44% were Christian. The last time a larger percentage of refugees were Muslim than Christian was in 2006 when many Somali refugees were arriving in the US.

Are most of the refugees young men?

No. For example, 78 percent of the Syrian refugees who have been admitted to the US are women and children. 72 percent of the refugees resettled in the US in FY 2016 were women or children.

How many Syrian refugees are in the US? How many are coming to the US? Up until fiscal year 2016, very few Syrians had gone through the entire process and entered the US. President Obama raised the quota of Syrian refugees that we would accept to 10,000 for FY 2016. That goal was met. Syrian refugee resettlement has now been completely halted under Trump's executive order. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/30/us/syrian-refugees-in-the-united-states.html?_r=0

Why shouldn’t we require more vetting for refugees?  Wouldn’t that keep us safer?

The main reason is that it would make it more difficult for people who need help to enter the US without any proven national security benefit. Nearly 785,000 refugees have been admitted to the US since 2001 and only about about 12 “have been arrested or removed from the US due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the US.” That is a very acceptable level of risk. Congress already mandated extra screening for Syrian refugees at the end of last year. People in the US have not been in danger because of refugee resettlement in the past, even when there were less restrictive vetting processes in place. The system has worked and is working. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/11/19/the-viral-claim-that-not-one-refugee-resettled-since-911-has-been-arrested-on-domestic-terrorism-charges/

Did Obama ban Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011?

No. There was a slowdown, but the data clearly shows that Iraqi refugees entries continued. Clink the first link below to open an excel file on resettlement from wrapsnet, then click the 2011 tab and scroll down to Iraq.

Weren’t the Tsarnaev brothers refugees? And Ahmad Khan Rahami? The Tsarnaev brothers were asylees, not refugees. I cannot find out whether Rahami was a refugee when he entered as a small boy. In both cases, the boys/men were radicalized in the US and were US citizens. Vetting cannot predict future risk, especially in small children, nor is it intended to. Since 1980, no refugee has committed a fatal terrorist attack in the US. Before 1980 when new vetting procedures were implemented, 3 Cuban refugees carried out terrorists attacks that killed three people. Truly, refugee resettlement has not caused national security concerns.

Weren't some Syrian refugees been admitted without all the vetting they’re supposed to get?

No.  Because of the delays that the Congress-mandated additional vetting for Syrian refugees caused, in early summer of 2016 more refugee officers were sent to interview applicants to help speed up the process so that all 10,000 refugees would be processed before the end of September 2016.  The refugees still had their required screening, including the extra screening.

Didn’t FBI Director James Comey say that the US cannot vet Syrian refugees?

There has been a lot of reporting that Comey doesn’t think the vetting process is safe, but that is not true.  While Comey obviously stated that he personally cannot ensure that there is no risk associated with any given refugee, he has stated that the vetting process has improved dramatically and that he believes it is adequate.  Also, several other agencies besides the FBI vet all Syrian refugees, including extra vetting only applied to Syrians.  There are no guarantees but there are many, many safeguards.

Why don’t we create safe zones for refugees inside Syria or in other parts of the Middle East ?

It would be very difficult to ensure the safety of the millions of people living in the safe zones, plus provide food, shelter, clothing, education, and employment for all of those people. It would require a significant military and financial commitment. Refugee camps are already in place in Jordan, for example, and refugees are safer there than in Syria but Jordan and other surrounding countries cannot support millions of people. Also, refugee camps/safe zones are not long-term solutions. The Syrian civil war has been ongoing for over five years and families need access to jobs and education. Resettlement truly is the only feasible option if refugees cannot go home or stay in their host countries.

Why don’t Arab/Muslim countries take in the refugees?

This is a common charge that completely misrepresents the refugee population in the Middle East. Nearly all Syrian refugees are currently living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. All except Turkey are Arab countries (Turkey is Turkish with an unrelated language) and all are Muslim-majority, although Lebanon has a significant Christian minority. It is simply incorrect to state that Muslim and Arab countries aren’t doing their part. However, it is very true that some Muslim countries aren’t allowing Syrian refugees to be resettled in their countries, including the wealthy Gulf countries. Those countries have donated money rather than accepting refugees and have also accepted a large number of immigrants from those countries, although they are not legally refugees. There are enough Syrian refugees who need resettlement that the US would still need to accept refugees even if every wealthy Muslim country accepted refugees. If the US accepted as many refugees as Lebanon has, for example, we would have 40 million refugees in the US.

Why should we take in these people?

The most important reason is because they are human beings who need help.  The US also has a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees because of our historical involvement in the Middle East. From a national security perspective, it is very important that we do all we can to relieve the pressure on Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey as they host millions of Syrian refugees.  These four countries are all in somewhat precarious political and financial situations and the influx of so many refugees has contributed to their instability.  Resettling refugees could help make neighboring countries’ situations less difficult.

Why should we spend our limited resources on refugees?

Besides our moral obligation, the US is among the wealthiest countries in the world. We do have the resources to help refugees. It is also very important to remember that 56 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in 10 countries with a combined GDP of less than 2.5 percent of global GDP. If these countries are doing so much with so little, we can certainly share some of our resources. Again, if the US accepted as many refugees as Lebanon has, for example, we would have 40 million refugees in the US. http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/tackling-the-global-refugee-crisis-from-shirking-to-sharing-responsibility

What about the homeless, the veterans, and so many other people in the US who need help?
There are many people in the US who need help. I very much hope that good people everywhere will work together to advocate for all disadvantaged groups. Money allocated to refugee resettlement is not taken from veterans or the homeless or anyone else. We can help a wide variety of people.

There are no absolute promises that any person in the US or applying to enter the US will never commit an act of terrorism, no matter their race, religion, or nationality. Welcoming refugees obviously does involve some level of risk. However, the actual risk has been proven to be so low as to be almost non-existent. Instead of directing our energy toward shutting down the Syrian refugee program, we should make it possible to welcome more refugees.

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