Here’s what to understand about refugee law & policy

Syrian Refugees Enes Reyhan via Flickr.jpg

I’ve been working as an attorney, primarily in immigration for 12 years. The overwhelming majority of the cases I handled have been asylum cases. I’ve taught a law school clinical practicum for eight years. I’ve spoken and trained attorneys and non-attorneys about asylum law and immigration, nationally and locally. I know the law and I know the process well.

Asylum, for those who aren’t familiar, is based on the same legal definition as “refugee.” The difference is just in where someone is located when they apply for protection from harm.

Here’s what you should understand about refugee law and policy. It will help you better evaluate the statements being made by many others, and it will hopefully help you form a more informed opinion.

First, what does it even mean to be a refugee? Under U.S. law (8 USC 1101(a)(42)), we use this definition (I’m going to paraphrase a little for ease of reading): Someone who is outside of their country of nationality, and who is unable or unwilling to return or get protection from their own government because of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

A refugee must be outside his or her country of origin and outside the United States to seek “refugee” status. They go through an application process, which involves in-person interviews and extensive background checks. This includes full fingerprints, INTERPOL checks, name checks, and cross-referencing a lot of government databases. The United States must approve them before they can set foot in this country. The approval process, before someone can be admitted to the United States, routinely takes between 12-24 months, and sometimes longer.

There is no “right” to refugee status. Individuals can be denied for any reason. Common reasons for denial are not meeting the legal definition of refugee or having inconsistencies in the person’s story.

Refugees must meet eligibility guidelines to enter the United States. These include not being “inadmissible.” There are a lot of reasons you can be deemed inadmissible. For a little “light” reading, check out 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(3). It explains all of the “Security and Related Grounds” of inadmissibility. Having spent years appearing in Immigration Court and working with and against the good people at Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – trust me, they are not erring on the side of admitting people who might be a danger.

The “material support” provision excludes not just people who’ve associated with “known” terrorist groups. It excludes anyone who we have “reasonable ground to believe” is likely to engage in terrorism or terrorist-type activities. This section of law is incredibly broad and permissive in favor of the government to exclude potential refugees and immigrants. Terrorist groups can include any group of “two or more individuals.” The list of activities that can get you barred is long. Really, just go read the statute if you aren’t sure.

The number of refugee admissions statutorily allowed by congress is pretty small – for FY 2015 that number was capped at 70,000 as it has been for years. It’s only recently that we’ve even come close to filling that capacity. Often we’re below it.

We cannot predict the future. Someone may, after being admitted as a refugee, do something terrible. So might someone who is a U.S. citizen, as we have witnessed many times. Emily Good

By: Emily Good, an attorney  working as the Legal Projects Manager for Minnesota Legal Services State Support. She was formerly a staff attorney and director for The Advocates for Human Rights Refugee & Immigrant Program.

Credit for Syrian refugees’ photo:
Enes Reyhan via Flickr

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If you have questions about how the legal immigration system works, post them below. We’ll do our best to answer or ask someone who might know.

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