Tracing the Refugee Resettlement Process in the U.S.

In 2015, President Obama called for the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States within a year. He further called for the resettlement of 100,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017. With over 3 million recognized Syrian refugees, how does the government select refugees for resettlement and what happens when refugees reach the United States?

Each year, the President consults with Congress to establish a limit on the number of refugees admitted to the United States. The U.S. Refugee Admission Program manages the referral system that determines which refugees gain admission. The entire process can take between 12-33 months, and it involves multiple domestic and international organizations and agencies.

1. Referrals to the Refugee Admission Program

Only U.S. embassies, authorized non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) may make referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program. In practice, UNHCR makes most referrals. UNHCR first conducts what is called “refugee status determination” to establish whether a person meets the international law definition of refugee.

UNHCR then seeks solutions for recognized refugees, which include integration into the country currently hosting the refugee, voluntary repatriation to the refugee’s country of origin, or resettlement in a different country. Due to restrictive immigration policies around the world, resettlement is very rare. Only one percent of the world’s refugees resettle abroad.

UNHCR applies its own criteria to determine whether a refugee should be referred to a resettlement program. The agency will not recommend a refugee for resettlement if she falls into a “category of concern.” For instance, UNHCR resettlement officers will not refer Syrians who previously worked for government ministries. The screening process for resettlement is unforgiving, and the agency will not recommend a refugee if questions exist about her background or affiliations.

2.  Processing at a Resettlement Support Center

Following a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program, the refugee’s case progresses to one of the nine Resettlement Support Centers around the world. The center prepares the refugee’s case for presentation to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This often involves taking photographs, checking facts within the refugee’s file, and collecting information for the security clearance process. The center would also prepare the cases of the spouse and children of the refugee, if applicable.

An officer of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component of DHS, then interviews the refugee to determine whether she is admissible to the United States under domestic immigration laws.   Non-citizens seeking admission, including refugees, may be refused for a variety of reasons, including criminal, health, or security-related grounds.  DHS also consults its own law enforcement and terrorism databases to screen applicants. Refugees who are granted admission may receive a loan from the International Organization of Migration to cover the costs of travel, repayable after the refugee has resettled to the United States.

3. Arrival in the U.S.

Upon entry into the United States, each refugee is sponsored by one of nine agencies that participate in the Reception & Placement Program. Sponsorship typically lasts between 30-90 days, during which the agency and its affiliated offices provide housing, food, clothing, and other necessities to the recently arrived refugee. The agencies also help refugees access social, medical, and employment services. Refugee status lasts for twelve months, after which the person may apply to become a legal permanent resident. After five years as a permanent resident she may then apply for U.S. citizenship.

To date, UNHCR has referred over 15,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program, yet less than 2,000 have successfully resettled. The lengthy application and screening process, often justified on national security grounds, has delayed the resettlement of the relatively few refugees that the United States has agreed to accept. Many claim that accepting Syrian refugees poses a security risk, yet the resettlement process already involves multiple checks into a refugee’s history and affiliations. These include UNHCR’s initial refugee status determination, UNHCR’s resettlement referral process, and the interviews and investigations conducted by the DHS. Fears and prejudices that lack evidentiary support should not drive U.S. policy towards Syrian refugee resettlement. Instead, we should work to speed up and expand resettlement for those in desperate need of protection and assistance.


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