One of the most heartbreaking parts of being an immigration lawyer is hearing the stories of families who have been torn apart by war. As the Syrian conflict continues to affect millions of families and create a humanitarian crisis not seen since World War II, many lawyers take pride in being able to help families set a course toward a new (and legal) life in the U.S.
But as an increasingly fragmented media stokes irrational fears, my job becomes even more challenging—not just when explaining the subtleties of law to clients and critics, but also when operating within a legal system beset with hysterical lawmakers who use the media to stoke the fears of their constituents.
Take for example current Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence. In early October, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision against him regarding his refusal to release federal funding to aid Syrian refugees admitted legally into his state. Pence argued that the state had a “compelling interest in protecting its residents from the well-documented threat of terrorists posing as refugees to gain entry to Western countries.”
The main problem with Pence’s argument, the court said, was that he provided no such evidence: “Indeed, as far as can be determined from public sources, no Syrian refugees have been arrested or prosecuted for terrorist acts or attempts in the United States.”
The problem is while citizens and lawmakers argue over what might or probably won’t happen, people (many of them women and children) languish in refugee camps in desperate need of action. The best thing I can do as an immigration lawyer in a political environment rife with much vitriol and misinformation, is try to educate people about the facts of the refugee experience.
A refugee is defined by federal law INA §101(a)(42) as a person who is outside of their country of nationality and unable to return due to a fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. In some cases, the President of the United States, after consulting members of Congress, can declare persons inside their country of nationality as refugees. What many don’t realize is that achieving refugee status in the U.S., and then being granted asylum, is a tedious bureaucratic process that can take several years.
The Syrian Conflict
In 2011, a series of massive populist protests unfolded across the Middle East in what would become known as the Arab Spring. In Syria, the ensuing government crackdown and subsequent rebellion left the country in bloody turmoil killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and displacing millions.
The Migration Policy Centre, which provides policy-oriented research on global migration, estimates that since the start of the Syrian conflict, 11 million people have fled their homes. The U.S. stated its intention last year to ramp up its efforts and admit at least 10,000 refugees. In September, the White House announced it had exceeded its original goal for FY16 by 2,500.
That figure will likely grow next year. The White House has said it hopes to admit 110,000 refugees from all around the world (up from 85,000 this year). While it’s unclear what percentage of that number might include Syrian refugees, its reasonable to expect more Syrians will be admitted. A recent Washington Post article quoted Ann Richard, assistant secretary of state of population refugees and migration, who indicated the number of Syrians admitted to the U.S. will likely increase.
“This administration has been clear it wants more Syrians,” Richard said. “My guidance is we want to bring even more than we brought this year, without having a target.”
Unfortunately for many refugees, media statements by heads of state belie the complexity of the refugee application process. Suffice it to say, immigration involves more than a sound byte or the mere stroke of a pen.
Applying for Refugee Status
The process begins when a Syrian contacts a U.N. Refugee Agency administered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This initial contact between refugee and relief agency might happen in Turkey, Lebanon or even Europe. The UNHCR performs an initial assessment of the Syrian national, including an interview to confirm refugee status and collection of biometrics (iris scans, fingerprints).
A small number of these individuals are referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), which assists the refugee in the application process to the U.S. The refugee is not admitted to the U.S. at this time, but rather awaits approval of their application while still abroad. This process averages anywhere from 18 to 24 months.
The foreign national will need to fill out a Registration for Classification as Refugee Form, which is filed with US Immigration and Customs Services (USCIS). During this time, multiple federal agencies including the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI and the Department of Defense, conduct an extensive background check on the applicant to ensure that persons admitted to the U.S. are not suspected of terrorist activity.
The foreign national will be interviewed abroad by a USCIS officer. The same agency will then either approve or deny the Syrian’s request for refugee status.
Once approved, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) conducts its own background check on the refugee. Once the refugee passes CBP, the refugee can enter and have temporary permission to work. A refugee admitted to the U.S. must apply for lawful permanent resident status (green card) one year after coming to the U.S. Once this process is initiated, another round of background checks begins.
More Compassion, Less Fear
People who associate refugees with terrorism don’t realize refugees go through the most rigorous vetting process of any group of travelers to the U.S. While the risk of a person associated with terrorist activity slipping through the cracks is a possibility, the chances are exceedingly small. As John Oliver of the HBO program Last Week Tonight hilariously explained on his show recently, any activity we undertake involves some element of risk.
“As reasonable adults, we accept tiny amounts of risk baked into our everyday lives,” he said. After citing a statistic that cows kill roughly 20 people in the U.S. annually, Oliver exclaimed, “No one is saying we should expel all cows from the country!”
Put simply, Americans have a right to be proud of their country’s status as a world leader and the bravery of its citizens. When looking at the facts, it’s plain to see the benefits of accepting refugees outweigh any perceived risk.