How refugees are resettled in the United States

Syrian refugees arrive in Jordan, where they are greeted by authorities and sent to refugee camps and temporary settlements. The United States has agreed to take in as many as 8,000 Syrian refugees next year. But there is growing political backlash.
Syrian refugees arrive in Jordan, where they are greeted by authorities and sent to refugee camps and temporary settlements. The United States has agreed to take in as many as 8,000 Syrian refugees next year. But there is growing political backlash.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

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The United States plans to accept as many as 8,000 refugees from Syria next year. The Obama administration announced earlier this year that it would dramatically increase the number of Syrians allowed into the United States, as millions have fled the civil war-torn country.

But a backlash to these refugees' arrival has been brewing after the recent terror attacks in Paris. House Republican lawmakers passed a bill last week that would make the screening process even more stringent for refugees coming from Syria and Iraq. Some state governors have said they don't want Syrian refugees to settle in their states, although ultimately, that decision is not up to them.

The resettlement process is a complicated one. Here are the nuts and bolts, and the latest developments.

How do people enter the U.S. refugee pipeline?

According to the U.S. State Department, prospective refugees are referred for resettlement to the United States by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. Embassy, or an approved non-governmental organization. They are referred to what's called the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

At that point, resettlement workers help refugees and their families prepare their case to present to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS officials screen hopeful refugees, who must undergo a thorough security clearance and medical exams before they can be cleared for admission to the U.S.

Once they are cleared, refugees are allocated to one of nine private NGOs that contract with the federal government. These agencies then take refugees through the resettlement process.

How is it decided where refugees will live in the U.S.?

Once the resettlement agencies are allocated a number of refugees, they go case-by-case to determine where individual refugee families will be best off.

People who have relatives or friends in a particular city may likely go to where they have those personal connections. Lillian Alba with the Los Angeles-area office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of the nine agencies, said staff members check on these relatives and friends to make sure they know the refugees, then allow them to act as sponsors.

But sponsors aren't necessary, Alba said. Resettlement agencies also try to place people where there's an existing immigrant community from the same country, people who share the refugees' cultural background and language.
 
“We look at the cultural, religious resources, interpreters, faith based organizations…we evaluate employment, housing – if it is affordable – and if the community is able and willing and welcoming of this refugee," Alba said. "All of these aspects are taken into consideration when placing someone in a particular city."

Factors like whether there are any special health needs are also taken into consideration, she said.

The entire resettlement process can take up to a couple of years, Alba said, with much depending on how long it takes to screen refugees.

How do refugees get on their feet after they arrive?

For the first 90 days after refugees arrive, the contracted resettlement agency is responsible for providing them with food, shelter, medical care and other services. They also help them find work, reaching out to local employers, Alba said. This is where immigrant networks can be helpful.

"A lot of refugees, their first job is with a former refugee who is now a business owner, who might now have a supermarket or a bakery," Alba said, " because they understand, they are open to being that support for newcomers. "

The agencies also work with state and local officials so refugees can obtain whatever social services they need. Like other immigrants with legal status, refugees in California are eligible for public state benefits such as the CalFresh food stamp program, Medi-Cal and other services.

Do state governors have a say in whether refugees can settle in a particular state?

Since the recent Paris terror attacks, in which there was suspicion that one attacker could have been Syrian, more than 30 state governors in the U.S. have announced they don't want to admit Syrian refugees to their states.

State governments don't make that decision, however. But state governments do have control of state social services, which refugees are entitled to. However, blocking those services could present legal obstacles.

In Indiana, the governor ordered state agencies to stop resettlement assistance for Syrians; this led the American Civil Liberties Union to file suit earlier this week, after a Syrian refugee family bound for Indiana was re-routed to Connecticut.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the resettlement agency working with the family, seeks an injunction to stop the governor from withholding assistance to refugees or to the agency. The complaint argues that governor has no authority to suspend refugees' resettlement in Indiana. From the complaint:

Defendants’ suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana is preempted by the Constitution and federal law for multiple reasons, including that it impinges on the exclusively federal authority to regulate immigration and to classify non-citizens; that federal law occupies the field of refugee admission and resettlement; and that it conflicts with the Immigration and Nationality Act and other federal statutes.

What does the recently-passed House bill aim to do?

The House Republican-backed bill passed last week aims to make the security process especially tight for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

The legislation would make it so people from these countries "may not be admitted as a refugee until the FBI certifies to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) that he or she has received a background investigation sufficient to determine whether the alien is a U.S. security threat; and may only be admitted to the United States after DHS, with the unanimous concurrence of the FBI and the DNI, certifies to Congress that he or she is not such a threat," according to the bill.

It's unclear when the Senate will take it up. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.

How stringent is the current screening process?

All refugees must undergo thorough background checks in order to admitted to the United States. Federal officials say that refugees from certain countries such as Syria are especially scrutinized. Biometric information is collected, and individuals are put through criminal background checks and reviews of their travel history, among other things.

Homeland Security, the FBI, the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center weigh in. Not everyone makes the cut.

The White House recently posted a graphic timeline of the refugee screening process. It states there is "recurrent vetting" throughout the screening process, during which "pending applications continue to be checked against terrorist databases, to ensure new, relevant terrorism information has not come to light. If a match is found, that case is paused for further review."

According to the White House graphic, if and when refugees are cleared to come to the U.S., they are required to apply for a green card within a year - which leads to a new cycle of vetting.

The entire graphic can be viewed here.