1. WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A REFUGEE?
Under both international and U.S. law, a refugee is an individual who
- has fled his or her country of origin
- because of a credible fear of persecution
- on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group.
This definition of a refugee does not include those who flee their homes but stay within the boundaries of their country, who are classified as “Internally Displaced Persons.” It also does not include those who flee a situation of poverty, a natural disaster, or even violence, unless the violence was specifically motivated by their race, religion, political opinion, or one of the other grounds under the legal definition.
The U.S. government admits individuals for resettlement within the United States only after a thorough individual screening abroad to ensure both that they meet the legal definition of a refugee and that they in no way pose a national security or health threat to the United States. Those selected for resettlement in the U.S. are admitted with legal status and are resettled by one of nine national voluntary agencies, one of which is World Relief.
2. WHAT IS THE PROCESS FOR REFUGEES COMING TO THE U.S., AND HOW ARE THEY VETTED FOR SECURITY CONCERNS?
There is an enormous difference between the situation of asylum-seekers we are seeing arrive on European borders, and the relatively much smaller number of refugees who are admitted into the United States. While countries that are proximate to a refugee crisis may have significant numbers of asylum seekers arrive at their borders before any vetting can be done, those admitted through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program go through a very thorough screening process prior to being admitted to the United States.
The U.S. can technically accept refugees through referrals from its consulates or in specially established cases from NGOs, but in practice the vast majority are referred by UNCHR. Most of these refugees are either living in refugee camps of in urban contexts outside of camps, and all will be coming from “countries of first asylum” in the Middle East–primarily Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, possibly also Egypt and Iraq. If a refugee reaches Europe, they would then file an asylum claim there, which would invalidate any claim to need the protection of the U.S. (if rejected by Europe, the U.S. could consider the case, but would be unlikely to make a different finding, as their standards are similar to European countries under the UN Convention on Refugees).
While the vetting and review process occurs, those refugees are living in that country of first asylum, whether in a camp or in a city and cannot be considered for entry to the U.S. until their case is finalized and approved.
This process involves the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense as well as the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center. The process generally requires at least 18 months and includes in-person interviews, biometric background checks, and interviews with third-persons who may have information about the individual being considered for resettlement to the U.S. Only a fraction of one percent of the world’s refugees are admitted for resettlement to the U.S. in any given year, so priority is given to those who are deemed to be most vulnerable, including a majority who are women or children. The vetting process for those being considered for refugee status is actually more stringent than that of any other category of visitor or immigrant to the United States. The U.S. refugee resettlement system continues to be a lifeline to desperate individuals fleeing terrorism. See the steps of the security screening process for refugees being admitted to the United States as provided by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
3. CAN U.S. GOVERNORS LEGALLY STOP SYRIAN REFUGEES FROM ENTERING THEIR STATE?
The admission of refugees into the United States is governed by the Refugee Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in 1980. The Refugee Act makes clear that the Executive Branch is responsible for designating and admitting refugees. Subsequent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court have reaffirmed that the federal government has the primary responsibility for immigration policy, and that each of the fifty states cannot reasonably set their own policies. Refugees who are admitted through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program are in full valid legal status from the moment they arrive, and like any other American they are free to move throughout the country.
Therefore State Governments can’t actually prevent refugees from entering their territory. But they can make it much harder for them. States play a much bigger role in helping refugees settle in the US than they do with other kinds of immigrants, and are very involved in helping refugees settle in the US — this then gives them significant opportunities to try to restrict or reject Syrian refugees.
4. HOW MIGHT THE BIBLE INFORM OUR THINKING ABOUT THIS SITUATION?
The Bible has a lot to say about how God’s people should respond to refugees and other migrants. In fact the Hebrew word ger—translated into English variously as foreigner, sojourner, stranger, or immigrant—appears 92 times just in the Old Testament, often in the context of God commanding his people to love and welcome those who came as foreigners into their land. Many of the heroes of our Christian faith—David, Elijah, even Jesus himself—had to flee persecution from tyrannical governments seeking to do them harm. The New Testament repeatedly commands us to “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13), which literally means to practice loving strangers—with the hint that, by doing so, we may be welcoming angels (Heb. 13:2).
Welcoming refugees is a tangible way to love our neighbors, part of Jesus’ Great Commandment (Luke 10:27) and to practice the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), treating others as each of us would hope to be treated if we were to find ourselves in a desperate situation, forced to flee to a foreign land.
Welcoming refugees also presents an opportunity to stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted for their faith—which includes a significant number of refugees from various parts of the world—as well as to witness to the love and welcome of Jesus to those of other religious traditions. Since we believe that each person is made in the Image of God, we seek to serve and welcome all those fleeing persecution, regardless of their religious or cultural background.
5. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A REFUGEE AND AN UNDOCUMENTED (OR “ILLEGAL”) IMMIGRANT?
In the United States, anyone admitted as a refugee has legal status from the moment that they enter. While these individuals could still face deportation if they committed serious crimes or otherwise violated U.S. immigration law, in the vast majority of cases they become Lawful Permanent Residents and then become eligible after five years to apply for U.S. citizenship. (Canada, Australia, Sweden and other countries have similar resettlement programs).
In the U.S., Canada, and in most parts of Europe, there are also processes to request asylum. Asylum-seekers arrive in a country either on a temporary visa or unlawfully, but claim that they meet the legal definition of a refugee described above. In most cases, these individuals are allowed to stay temporarily in the country while their cases are adjudicated: they must present sufficient evidence to a judge or other governmental official to prove that they are indeed fleeing persecution for one of the reasons elaborated under the law. If approved, in most situations they will be allowed to stay; if denied, they will generally face deportation.
In both the U.S. and in other parts of the world, many immigrants have either entered the country unlawfully or overstayed a temporary visa. While some of these individuals may have valid claims to asylum, others are driven by economic factors, such as poverty or unemployment in their countries of origin, and as such do not qualify as refugees under the law. Under U.S. law, at least, these individuals who are unlawfully present are generally not eligible for the benefits afforded to refugees such as employment authorization, resettlement support, and limited public assistance.
6. HOW CAN WE BE SURE THAT THESE “REFUGEES” ARE NOT ACTUALLY TERRORISTS SEEKING TO INFILTRATE OUR COUNTRY?
Any refugee admitted into the United States undergoes a thorough screening process led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is an absolutely vital element of the refugee resettlement program. In fact, these checks are among the most thorough background checks undergone by any immigrants or visitors coming to the United States. Other countries with resettlement programs have similar checks in place.
The U.S. system of refugee resettlement has a long history of successfully integrating refugees, having welcomed more than 3 million refugees since 1975: the vast majority of refugees are grateful to their adopted country for receiving them. Those selected for resettlement are the victims of governmental persecution and/or terrorism, not the perpetrators, and they tend to be the fiercest critics of extremist groups and tyrannical governments, having suffered at their hands. Throughout this history, there has never been a terrorist attack successfully perpetrated on U.S. soil by an individual who had been admitted to the country as a refugee. In the exceptionally rare cases where someone admitted as a refugee has been suspected of ties to groups interested in harming the United States, it has often been other former refugees from within the same ethnic community who have alerted law enforcement.
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