Our current refugee resettlement program has been increasingly debated in Washington ever since the Syrian refugee crisis and its relation to the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015.
Authorities have found evidence that one of the attackers may have been posing as a Syrian refugee to cross the border, and that the attackers had connections to ISIS located in Syria (BBC). As more refugees are seeking asylum in the United States and elsewhere, politicians are taking a serious look into whether Syrian refugees entering the U.S. could pose a threat the U.S. citizens.
Back in November, a bill was passed in the House that limits refugee entry into the country “that would suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. until key national security agencies certify they don’t pose a security risk” (CNN). The bill passed easily in the House and has the potential to also pass in the Senate, even though Obama has threatened to veto if it reaches his desk.
So, what exactly is our current refugee resettlement program and how do Syrian refugees fit into the mix?
Well, there are currently 4,597,436 registered Syrian refugees (UNHCR). Every year, the President sits down to determine how many refugees they can afford to let into the country (known as the refugee ceiling). However, it is up to Congress to distribute the funds.
In recent years, it costs over $1 billion to resettle refugees and about $15,700 per refugee (TIME). In the fiscal year 2015, the U.S. only took in 1,682 Syrian refugees (that is only 0.037% of all Syrian refugees) with a 70,000 refugee ceiling in total (State.gov). For 2016 fiscal year, the ceiling has expanded to 85,000 with the hope to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees (Factcheck).
Critics say the U.S. is not doing enough because 10,000 is still only 0.22% of 4,597,436. They also say the number is too high for security reasons, such as Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. These candidates in particular have exaggerated the number of Syrian refugees the Obama administration is planning on taking in the fiscal year of 2017 to over 100,000 (Factcheck).
For 2016 fiscal year, the ceiling has expanded to 85,000 with the hope to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees (Factcheck).
Trump stated at a Texan rally “our president wants to take in 250,000 from Syria” (Factcheck). This number is misleading because the total number of refugees taken in worldwide for 2017 will increase from 85,000 to 100,000 (Factcheck). But that number doesn’t represent refugees specifically from Syria.
How do refugees gain access to the U.S.?
In order for a refugee to get into the U.S., or any other country, they first have to apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Once the UNHCR determines that they fit refugee qualifications, such as severely lacking protection from their own country, they refer them to a third party country like the U.S. for resettlement. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, with the help of several more U.S. agencies, then determines refugee eligibility based on three classifications:
Refugees in severe danger of prosecution in their own country who have no other alternatives
Refugees from special concern groups (usually high risk areas, could be Syria) determined by the State Department
Relatives of refugees currently settled in the U.S.
Before acceptance in the U.S. refugees have to go through “extensive interviewing, screening, and security clearance process conducted by Regional Refugee Coordinators and overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs)” (ImmigrationPolicy.org). These refugees may not be allowed to be processed if they have criminal backgrounds or have any other security risk, although sometimes there are waivers for extenuating circumstances.
If the refugee is cleared by the RSC, then they will send a request for confirmed admission into the U.S. or other country. If the refugee is admitted to the U.S. it is still conditioned by whether or not the refugee passes the U.S. medical examination and security checks. The Human Rights First organization has criticized the U.S. for its refugee processing operations for taking too long (the average is 18-24 months); however, the Obama administration has been trying to make the system run more efficiently.
Once the refugee is cleared to go, travel plans must be arranged.
Refugees get a loan without interest that they must pay back within the first six months after arriving for their plane ticket. RSC and the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) work with VOLAG (private volunteer agencies) to decide where the refugee will live in the U.S. Special considerations are given to refugees who already have family living in the country. Once they arrive at the airport, VOLAG greets them and arranges the transportation for their final destination.
What are the reactions in the United States?
For the greater Washington DC and Northern Virginia area, the VOLAG for refugee services is the Lutheran Social Services. These organizations are also in charge of the refugee’s necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing for their first 90 days. Refugees are then expected to have a job within six months and after one year they may apply for Lawful Permanent Resident (“LPR”) status.
The United States government does not track refugees once they enter the country, and they are free to move as they please once they are resettled. This has led to mixed reactions from governors concerning Syrian refugees. Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe (D) presumably does not oppose this since he has said, even after the Paris Attacks, that Virginia is open to Syrian refugees (WTVR).
The United States government does not track refugees once they enter the country, and they are free to move as they please once they are resettled.
However, Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal (R) has ordered his state police to track Syrian refugees within the state because he thinks they have the potential to be a serious threat (US News). He is not alone. More than half of the country’s governors have opposed allowing Syrian refugees into their states. Obama is calling these responses very un-American.
As history reveals, America has never been particularly welcoming of refugees. In 1948, 57 percent of Americans disapproved of accepting European refugees after World War II. In 1975, 36 percent of Americans disapproved of taking in Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War, and in 1980, 71 percent of Americans disapproved of letting in Cuban refugees fleeing from Fidel Castro’s regime (TIME).
Today, 60 percent of Americans oppose taking in Syrian refugees (TIME), which is in line with state governors’ sentiments. Historically, presidents tend to accept more refugees, even if it’s against public opinion. The 85,000 refugee ceiling for 2016 has been set by the President, although Obama may not be able to override the bill passed in November with a veto. It was passed with enough votes in the House to override a veto. It is still unclear as to whether it will be brought to the Senate (Gallup).
Today, 60 percent of Americans oppose taking in Syrian refugees (TIME), which is in line with state governors’ sentiments.
The bill was passed with the fear that the current refugee resettlement system is not enough to secure that these refugees aren’t sympathizers with terrorist organizations such as ISIS. However, Syrian refugees, when asked why they are leaving, say it’s because they are fleeing ISIS and they are just as scared of Islamic terrorism as most Americans are (The Guardian).
Some argue that prolonging the vetting process just means more time that these refugees have to spend in extreme danger. Unlike 60 percent of Americans who don’t want to take in Syrian refugees nationally, 49 percent say if they are already in the U.S., they will be welcomed in their locality (Gallup).
They are coming from a country torn apart by civil war. Like every refugee before them, their experience in the U.S. will be determined by how they are accepted by the community they find themselves in.