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.

Supporting the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program

JORDAN-AMMAN-SYRIAN REFUGEES

 

November 17, 2015

Dear Senator/Representative:

As refugee and immigration law experts, humanitarian aid organizations, faith, labor and civil and human rights groups, we write to express our support for the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The world is witnessing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 4 million Syrians have fled from their home country fleeing conflict and violence, and 6.5 million are displaced internally.

At a time when the world needs humanitarian leadership, some are now calling for the suspension of the U.S. refugee resettlement program or the imposition of restrictions on funding for Syrians and other groups of refugees. We oppose these proposals and believe they would jeopardize the United States’ moral leadership in the world.

Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly the kind of terror that unfolded on the streets of Paris. They have suffered violence just like this for almost five years. Most have lost loved ones to persecution and violence, in addition to having had their country, their community, and everything they own brutally taken from them.

Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted group of people who come to the United States. Security screenings are rigorous and involve the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies. Department of Homeland Security officials interview each refugee to determine whether they meet the refugee definition and whether they are admissible to the United States. Refugees undergo a series of biometric and investigatory background checks, including collection and analysis of personal data, fingerprints, photographs, and other background information, all of which is checked against government databases. The entire process typically takes more than two years and often much more before the refugee would arrive in the U.S. In addition the Administration is already taking steps, with its existing authority, to increase the capacity of its security and screening procedures for refugees. There is no need for Congress to impose additional restrictions or security measures.

The United States decides which refugees to resettle. Because so few refugees in the world are resettled, the U.S. often chooses the most vulnerable, including refugees who cannot remain safely where they are and families with children who cannot receive the medical care they need to survive.

To turn our back on refugees would be to betray our nation’s core values. It would send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on the country they come from and their religion. This feeds into extremist propaganda and makes us all less safe. We call upon Congress to demonstrate leadership by speaking out against the scapegoating of any group during this time of crisis and to ensure that our nation’s humanitarian efforts are robust.

The United States is a welcoming country with a diverse society and our resettlement program must continue to reflect this.

We can welcome refugees while ensuring our own security. Refugees have enriched communities across our country and have been part of the American fabric for generations. Historically our nation has responded to every major war or conflict and has resettled refugees from Africa, South East Asia, Eastern Europe as well as the Middle-East. Closing the door to refugees would be disastrous for not only the refugees themselves, but their family members in the United States who are waiting for them to arrive, and our reputation in the world.

Sincerely,
The Advocates for Human Rights
Alliance for Citizenship
American Civil Liberties Union
American Immigration Lawyers Association
American Jewish Committee (AJC)
American Refugee Committee
America’s Voice Education Fund
Anti-Defamation League
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC
Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.
Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies
CARE USA
Center for Applied Linguistics
Center for Gender & Refugee Studies
Center for New Community
Center for Victims of Torture
Centro de los Derechos de Inmigrante, Inc.
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Refugee & Immigration Ministries
Church World Service
Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
Concern Worldwide (US) Inc.
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Council on American-Islamic Relations
The Episcopal Church
Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Farmworker Justice
Franciscan Action Network
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Habonim Dror North America
HIAS
Human Rights First
InterAction
International Catholic Migration Commission
International Refugee Assistance Project
International Rescue Committee
Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, National Advocacy Office
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Jewish Labor Committee
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Mercy-USA for Aid and Development
Mi Familia Vota
Muslim Public Affairs Council
NAFSA: Association of International Educators
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA)
National Council of Jewish Women
National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC)
National Immigration Forum
National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates
OneAmerica
ORAM – Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration
Oxfam America
Peace Action West
Presbyterian Church USA
Refugees International
Save the Children
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities
SustainUS: U.S. Youth for Justice
Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS)
Syria Relief Development
Tahirih Justice Center
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
Union for Reform Judaism
Unitarian Universalist Association
United to End Genocide
United Farm Workers
United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
UURISE – Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education, Inc.
Win Without War
Women’s Refugee Commission
Workmen’s Circle
World Relief