What Does It Take To Gain Refugee Status In America?

If one were to make an educated guess on how the screening process for Syrian refugees works based on recent statements from right-wing commentators and idiot governors and mayors across the land, one might assume that all anyone had to do in order to gain refugee status would be to show up one day and say, “Hi! I’m from Syria and a refugee – and also maybe a SECRET TERRORIST! Please give me refugee status!” Then, of course, someone in the government goes, “Great! You are all set!” and that is that.

Well, here’s a shocker: That is not at all how things work. In actuality, it is very, very, very difficult to gain refugee status in the United States.

In order to find out more about how this actually works, I spoke with Lier Chen of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, who explained that the complex process actually starts well before a refugee even enters the country.

Before a potential refugee is allowed to even apply, they must have already left their country and be living in an asylum country. Often, this means having left identifying documents like birth and marriage certificates back home, which makes it difficult to prove their case later on.

Then, after somehow becoming aware of their rights under international law (yes, this is an issue of international law), these refugees must petition for legal refugee status, usually by finding a way to get their case heard by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This means that they must prove that they left their country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group affiliation, or political opinion.”

Even once a person has gained refugee status, what actually happens next varies. Sometimes they get sent back to their home countries, sometimes they end up staying in their country of first asylum — and, very rarely, in only about one percent of cases, the UNHCR recommends resettling them in another country, like the United States, that has a resettlement program.

Once alllllll of that is done, they still have to go through an extremely long and complicated process to enter the United States. Generally, it takes 18-24 months for someone to attain refugee status here, because they are required to go through a rigorous 21-step vetting process. In fact, it is so damn long that I am just going to post a meme of it created by the Center for American Progress:


As you may have picked up on by now, our screening process for refugees — who account for only one-tenth of all immigration to the United States — is far more stringent than it is for literally anyone else entering the United States. And it’s even more rigorous for refugees coming from places like Iraq and Syria. Now, if you were a terrorist, do you think you’d go through that whole process, or do you think you might just fly in on a regular flight and say you were going on a vacation to Disneyland or something? I don’t know, I’m not a terrorist, but going through the whole refugee process seems like a fairly inefficient way to go about things.

The current conflict in Syria has displaced over 12 million people. Although over 150,000 displaced Syrians have been resettled worldwide, the United States has only taken in about 2,000 since 2013 (comparatively, Canada has taken in about 38,000). The United Nations is currently calling on countries with resettlement policies to take in more of these refugees.

Just today, the House passed a bill meant to make this screening process even more rigorous than it already is, which President Obama has said he will veto. The purpose of this bill, I’m quite sure, is not because our current process isn’t working, but because House Republicans want to pretend like it isn’t, and that they are the only ones who can possibly “keep us safe.” And they’re preying upon the ease with which certain people get so worked up about “dang foreigners” that they don’t pause for a minute and really think about the situation.

Politicians like Jeb Bush are saying that we should only grant asylum to Christians (whom he will be able to identify with his psychic powers). David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, spoke glowingly of the Japanese internment camps of WWII in order to justify his opposition to taking in Syrian refugees. These people are falling all over themselves trying to see who can sound like the biggest asshole while talking about people trying to escape from horrors they’d never have to worry about themselves. It’s sickening.

Making this process more rigorous than it is isn’t going to keep us any safer–it’s just going to make life more difficult for people trying to escape some seriously terrifying life circumstances. The Syrians that we are giving refugee status to now are those who are most vulnerable — “survivors of violence and torture, those with severe medical conditions, and women and children.” Are these really people we want to make things even harder for?

[Center For American Progress]
[Human Rights First]