How do Syrian refugees get into the U.S.? Explaining the process

Posted at 9:26 AM, Nov 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-17 10:31:58-05

WASHINGTON — The Paris terrorist attacks have intensified a debate in Washington over whether the U.S. should allow Syrian refugees to enter the country.

Following reports that one of the terrorists involved in the strike entered Europe as part of a wave of Syrians fleeing the country’s civil war, Republicans on and off the campaign trail are pressing President Barack Obama not to accepte he displaced people. Many Republican governors, meanwhile, have said they won’t allow Syrian refugees into their states.

Here’s how the refugee process works.

How do refugees come to the U.S.?

Potential refugees first apply for asylum through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the international body in charge of protecting and assisting refugees.

States cannot refuse refugees, but they can make it difficult

The UNHCR essentially decides who merits refugee status based on the parameters laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

If it’s demonstrated that the refugee in question meets the above conditions, the applicant may be referred by the UNHRC for resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, where he or she will be given legal resident status and eventually be able to apply for citizenship.

After the UNHCR refers a refugee applicant to the U.S., the application is processed by a federally funded Resettlement Support Center, which gathers information about the candidate to prepare for an intensive screening process, which includes an interview, a medical evaluation and an inter-agency security screening process aimed at ensuring the refugee does not pose a threat to the U.S.

The average processing time for refugee applications is about 12 to 18 months, but Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information.

Once they’ve completed that part of the process, the refugee is paired with a resettlement agency in the U.S. to assist in his or her transition to the country. That organization provides support services, such as language and vocational training, as well as monetary assistance for housing and other necessities.

What’s the security vetting process like?

Much attention has been focused on the security vetting refugees must go through before they come to the U.S., particularly after it was revealed that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks entered Europe through a refugee processing center.

Several federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are involved in the process, which Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner recently called, “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States.”

These agencies use biographical and biometric information about applicants to conduct a background check and make sure applicants really are who they say they are.

What are the challenges associated with vetting these refugees?

Given the abysmal security situation in Syria and the fact that the U.S. does not maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in the country, it’s sometimes difficult for U.S. authorities to gather the information they need to thoroughly vet a Syrian applicant.

FBI Director James Comey hit on the issue at a congressional hearing last month, when he told lawmakers, “If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them.”

How many refugees have been admitted to the U.S.?

U.S. government data shows that just under 2,200 Syrian refugees have been admitted into the U.S. since the civil war broke out in March of 2011, and the vast majority of those were in the last year.

The administration has acknowledged that processing resettlement applications is a slow and laborious task, which has kept the U.S. from accepting as many applicants as it would like to.

But the pace of admissions is growing as the U.S. commits more resources to the endeavor.

Where are these refugees?

The Syrian refugees who have been admitted into the U.S. so far are spread out over 36 states in 138 cities and towns.

California has accepted the most Syrian refugees (252), followed by Texas (242) and Michigan (207).

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have not admitted any refugees, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of will. Resettlement locations are determined based on a number of factors, including family ties, the size of the local immigrant community and the ability of local resettlement agencies to accommodate new cases.

How many will be admitted in the future?

As the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East became more dire over the summer, the Obama administration decided to reevaluate how many Syrian refugees could be admitted.

Ultimately, the President decided to set a goal of 10,000 for the current fiscal year, which goes until October of 2016.

In order to accommodate these additional Syrian refugees, the administration upped the total number of refugees it would allow in FY2016 to 85,000, with plans to increase it to 100,000 in FY2017.

But there are significant challenges associated with increasing the quota.

As noted above, the vetting process for Syrian refugees is intensive and plagued by gaps in information.

In order to meet the 10,000 quota it has set, the administration will have to admit five and a half times more Syrian refugees in the coming year than it admitted in the previous four and a half years combined.

Who decides the quota?

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 actually sets fairly clear guidelines for how the government can set and change refugee admissions quotas.

Per section 207, the President has the authority to set the annual number, following “appropriate consultation” with members of Congress.

This is done at the start of the fiscal year but can be revisited mid-year in cases where “an unforeseen emergency refugee situation exists” and the admission of refugees in response to that emergency “is justified by grave humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

In that situation, the President can amend the number of refugees allowed prior to the start of the next fiscal year, again in consultation with Congress, essentially briefing the lawmakers.

My governor wants to stop admitting Syria refugees. Is that allowed?

Over 20 U.S. governors, most of them Republicans, announced in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that their states would not accept any further refugees from Syria. But it’s unclear whether they have the legal authority to do this.

State Department lawyers are looking into the issue, while the administration tries to allay state officials’ concerns about a potential terror threat.

Of course, even if a state — let’s say Texas — stops accepting Syrian refugees, there’s nothing to stop those refugees from crossing into Texas from a neighboring state. Refugees resettled into the U.S. are legal residents and can travel freely within the country.

But experts tell CNN that while the states may not have the legal authority to block their borders, state agencies have authority to make the process of accepting refugees much more difficult by cutting state and local funding.

Now lawmakers are weighing in with proposals to block Syrian refugee funding entirely, which would have the effect of freezing their absorption.

This step presents its own challenges, since funding for Syrian refugees is allocated along with funds to support refugees from other countries.