Refugees traveling to the United States are some of the most thoroughly vetted people to enter the United States. There has been much discussion in the news recently about admitting Syrian refugees to the United States. However, many people do not know the process refugees must endure before they may enter this country. Entrance is not immediate upon request, and may not occur at all.

For starters, per the laws of the United States, a refugee is a person who meets the following criteria:

  • Is located in a country other than the United States
  • Is not resettled into another country
  • Is of humanitarian concern to the U.S.
  • Is outside his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion or because the person is fleeing war or other armed conflict
  • Is admissible to the United States.

Refugees flee their homes leaving behind their businesses, farms, and communities (including extended family members) in order to escape war and persecution. Often, refugees flee to save their own or their families lives. They rarely have time to plan the departure and oftentimes are limited to only taking what they can carry. Family records, professional documents, diplomas, photographs, and other precious items are usually left behind.

The refugee flees his home country and travels to another country in search of safety. Once the refugee has reached a safe haven, to receive official refugee status the refugee must register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

UNHCR only refers about 1 percent of all refugees for resettlement to a third country. Only when all efforts to either help refugees return home or settle permanently in the country where they sought initial refuge have failed does third country resettlement become the option of last resort. Family ties, trade skills, professional abilities, language facility, and various other factors are considered by UNHCR when matching a refugee with a resettlement country. Generally, a refugee does not get to choose which country he will be assigned to, unless he has some sort of family ties already in place .

Only refugees who have been referred by UNHCR or the US embassy are eligible for to be considered by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for resettlement to the US. Once referred, each potential refugee is selected on a case-by-case basis by a specially-trained officer from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Testimony is collected to determine the priority of the potential refugee’s request and to answer whether or not the person qualifies to be considered as a refugee. The person’s credibility is evaluated, and the country of origin is taken into account.

It is important to note that security checks are completed, and then analyzed and reviewed before approval. A fingerprint check is then conducted, and the individual’s name is checked for criminal activities and prior applications to live in the U.S. Iris scans are sometimes completed. Military combatants are removed from consideration. The potential refugee may face lengthy delays in processing due to these checks, which are run through various government agencies, including the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. Just over 50% of applicants pass the multiple screenings required, and the process generally takes between eighteen to twenty-four months. Thus far, half of the refugees admitted to the United States have been children, and 25% are over the age of 60.

In closing, as stated by USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez, ”(T)he United States has a proud and long-standing tradition of offering protection, freedom, and opportunity to refugees from around the world who live in fear of persecution and are often left to languish in difficult conditions of temporary asylum…An integral part of this mission is to ensure that refugee resettlement opportunities go to those who are eligible for such protection and who do not present a risk to the safety and security of our country. Accordingly, we are committed to deterring and detecting fraud among those seeking to resettle in the United States, and we continue to employ the highest security measures to protect against risks to our national security.”



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