Five things experts want you to know about U.S. refugee resettlement

By Yingxu Jane Hao

Since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, debate has intensified in the U.S. over policies on Muslim refugees. While polls indicate fear of refugees and governors have called for shutting the door on them, many regular Americans are still supportive.

At a panel discussion hosted by Northwestern University’s Center for Forced Migration Studies on December 3, experts probed the complexity of refugee issues and the intricacies of U.S. policy.

U.S. refugee screening the toughest

While tens of thousands refugees have marched spontaneously to Europe, the U.S. does not take spontaneous refugees on arrival at the borders. So the security risk refugees pose in the U.S. is much lower, said Alexander Aleinikoff, former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), during a panel discussion.

As Aleinikoff explained, refugees are referred to Statement Department programs overseas by UNHCR. To be eligible for refugee status, people need to first confirm they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. Then they have to prove they are outside the “exclusion grounds” for refugee status, including a criminal record. From the qualified candidates, UNHCR selects the most vulnerable refugees like orphans and women with children.

“The screening process in the U.S. is the toughest one for any immigrant who wants to come to the country.” – Alexander Aleinikoff, UNHCR

After being strictly vetted by UNHCR, refugees go through “the most vigorous screening process for any individual entering to this country,” said anther panelist Robert Carey, director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Carey said refugees will be vetted first by Statement Department contractors, and then by specially trained staff knowledgeable about country conditions from the Department of Homeland Security. Refugees are screened through at least eight different databases, plus biometric checks and face-to-face interviews.

“It’s huge screening,” said Aleinikoff. “No screening is foolproof, but the screening process in the U.S. is the toughest one for any immigrant who wants to come to the country.”

Carey said there is an extra layer beyond the already stringent screening for refugees from certain countries, including Syria. Another database and clearance process is conducted by one of the U.S. security agencies.

The screening process for Syrian refugees in many countries takes less time than in the U.S., where it often takes two years. Some see it as “more considerate than it should be, given the humanitarian crisis,” Aleinikoff added.

Since the refugee crisis started in 2011, only 2,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S., Aleinikoff said.

Though the U.S. process is slow, it offers permanent refugee status and a pathway to permanent residency within five years, plus the chance of citizenship.

“It may be hard to believe, but not many Syrian refugees want to go to the U.S,” said Aleinikoff, “Around 80 percent of Syrian refugees are taken in by neighboring countries, since refugees want to stay close to their region and return home someday.”

“It’s important to remember those refugees don’t have an option,” said Carey, stressing that resettlement is not an economic choice but a life-saving opportunity given the brutal civil war in Syria.

Tension between federal and state government

Since the Paris attacks, more than half of the country’s governors, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, have vowed not to accept more Syrian refugees. Refugee resettlement is administered by state governments, but it is a federal responsibility. The Obama administration is still committed to resettling Syrians, and Illinois’ resettlement program continues.

At the panel, Carey said “the administration is very much committed to consulting the governors.”

Carey was on a call with governors convened by the White House last week, and he said there has been extensive follow-up. As part of the consultation process, every state has submitted a state plan detailing how service will be provided to refugees. States also have made commitments that services will be provided without regard to race, religion or country origin.

Panelists probed into U.S. refugee resettlement program at Northwestern University. From left to right: Jerome McDonnell, moderator, WBEZ; Robert Carey, Office of Refugee Resettlement; Suzanne Sahloul, Syrian Community Network; Alexander Aleinikoff, UNHCR; Ngoan Le, Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Service. (Yingxu Jane Hao/Medill)
Panelists probed into U.S. refugee resettlement program at Northwestern University. From left to right: Jerome McDonnell, moderator, WBEZ; Robert Carey, Office of Refugee Resettlement; Suzanne Sahloul, Syrian Community Network; Alexander Aleinikoff, UNHCR; Ngoan Le, Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Service. (Yingxu Jane Hao/Medill)

When it comes to the the operation of refugee programs, Carey said the federal government grants the money for resettlement to state governments, who then pass it on to refugee resettlement agencies. Refugees receive eight-month cash and medical assistance, and other forms of support to help them adapt and become self-sufficient in this country.

“Refugees in the U.S., unlike some other countries, don’t have very generous social services. Their benefits are tied to state levels and time-limited,” said Carey. “Refugees are expected to go to work very quickly, so many funds are focused on enabling them to find a job and become self-sufficient.”

The resettlement program is “one of the points of tension” between states and the federal government, said Ngoan Le, Illinois Refugee State Coordinator and Chief of the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Service.

The conflict between implementing a short-term federal program and the desire to make refugees productive Illinois residents has put the state in constant negotiation with the federal government about the right program models, the amount of assistance provided and the responsibilities of the state, according to Le.

“The federal government may say, ‘Well, after eight months, we should be able to walk away and good luck to the state,’” said Le. “But we have to make sure that they remain productive and happy and become a contributing member of our state…The federal government has the right to decide the number and type of refugees coming to our state, so we want that responsibility to stay until the refugees succeed.”

Community the key in refugee success

Suzanne Sahloul is the founder and president of the Syrian Community Network, the non-profit organization founded last year that has been working closely with 21 Syrian refugee families since the first came to Chicago in January. She said the families have generally received a warm welcome.

“I continuously hear from them, ‘I feel safe. People smile at me and my children,’” said Sahloul. “You can never underestimate the power of smile and being a welcoming community to refugees.”

According to Pew Research Center, polls show that historically the majority of the Americans don’t welcome refugees. But Carey said there is a difference between what polls show and what the community feels. As a refugee who herself came to America as a child, Le agreed that “the actual experience after refugees are resettled is very different.”

In fact, local communities are not only welcoming but also financially supportive. According to Sahloul, the Syrian Community Network now has a budget of four million dollars, and the effort of fundraising is continuing. Network case management coordinator Hadia Zarzour told Medill Reports that donations from the community create a safety net when refugees are short of federal monetary assistance.

“Because the support provided by both federal and state government is not adequate, our private partners have to go an extra mile to do fundraising to get the additional resources needed,” said Le.

A MedillNewsmakers episode in June looks at how Syrian-Americans are trying to help their friends and family back home. (Noor Wazwaz/Medill)

The Canadian model

Though private organizations play an important role in refugee resettlement in the U.S., in Canada the private sector plays an even bigger role in the refugee resettlement program where monetary assistance is provided for one year.

Chris Friesen is director of settlement services at the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. He told Medill Reports that the country’s private sponsorship program, starting in 1978, “has been part of our culture and values” ever since.

The program started in the midst of the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the time. He compares Syrian refugees today to Vietnamese “boat people” of the past. The program allows individual citizens to help resettle refugees.

“Five Canadians can come together, raise money and put it in the application to sponsor a refugee,” Friesen said.

Center for Forced Migration Studies founding director Galya Ruffer recommended more study of public-private resettlement models.

“It seems that in privatization models, there is more connection between communities and the incoming refugees, since private citizens are resettling them,” Ruffer told Medill Reports. “We need to study what they do to make their community more welcoming.”

According to Friesen, robust private sponsorship and the liberal government’s support of refugee resettlement means that next year Canada will bring in the largest number of refugees in the past 35 years. December alone will see an influx of 10,000 Syrians, he said.

He offered Canada’s experience as an example for other countries.

“If you want to undertake bold humanitarian movement, there should be the will and a system to put in place to make it happen,” said Friesen.

Human faces and hard numbers

Refugees, advocates and resettlement officials say that more information and research can help make Americans more comfortable with refugees.

Carey told Medill Reports that American opposition to refugees is not “because of lack of compassion, but because people are not as informed as they ideally should be.”

“We are refugees, but we don’t lose humanity.”

– Ifrah Megan

He said the public should educate themselves with information available from many government sources and media coverage.

Ifrah Megan, who was resettled in the U.S. from Somalia as a child, believes the media and politicians also need to be educated on the issue and thoughtful in how they portray it.

“Showing our humanity is what we lack here in our public discourse,” Megan, now a PhD student, told Medill Reports. “We are refugees, but we don’t lose humanity.”

To make people fully aware of refugee issue, Ruffer thinks human stories should be supplemented with data.

“Knowing a refugee from a story is probably the number one way to dispel fear,” Ruffer. “But we need data to tell why we want our resettlement program.”

The U.S. is a leader in terms of resettling more refugees than any other country. But there is a lack of data about how well the U.S. resettlement program identifies security risks and integrates refugees, and how refugees contribute to society economically and socially, said Ruffer.

The Dec. 3 panel was meant to launch the Center for Forced Migration Studies’ refugee resettlement program.

Ruffer told Medill Reports that at a forum preceding the panel discussion, scholars, refugees, thought leaders, government officials and refugee agency personnel developed a 14-page background report. It identifies challenges in the resettlement program and gaps in research, and serves as a guideline for future study.

“If we have more evidence-based data, we could better respond to the situation,” said Ruffer. “The news may change, but the work to be done remain unchanged.”

Photo at top: From the qualified candidates, UNHCR selects the most vulnerable refugees like orphans and women with children. (Mustafa Khayat/Creative Commons)