A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Terms & Technicalities

“It’s not easy to start over in a new place,’ he said. ‘Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” -Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying

Like any specific process Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. comes with it’s own language and facts specific to this unique process. This will be the most dense and least interesting segment I write, but entirely necessary in understanding refugee resettlement and by extension invalidating the misinformation that exists in our politically charged public. We need to start with defining the word “Refugee” in context of resettlement. “Refugee“ colloquially refers to “a person who has been forced to flee his or her country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” This definition comes to us from googling “define refugee.” Using that definition the UNHCR (United Nations High Chairman for Refugees—the global authority on refugees) gives us a figure of 65.3 million people who have been forcibly displaced as of December 2016. This number continues to grow.

However “Refugee” also refers to legal status as well. The UNHCR and the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency body that registers Palestinian Refugees) registered 21.3 million refugees by the end of December 2016. This number continues to grow. This number is significant because registering with the UNHCR gives a person legal right to flee their country. This status does not grant anything permanent, but identifies and legally legitimizes fleeing a person’s home country due to a credible threat. In practical terms registering with the UNHCR or UNRWA means that a person fled because of a real threat of irreparable harm as opposed to leaving a home country for other reasons. It is also important because this is the pool of refugees who may eventually come to the United States.

And lastly USCIS (A division of the Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services—the agency in charge of granting visas and other immigration benefits) grants I-94 “Refugee” visas. All refugees coming into the United States are granted an I-94 visa through a 18+ month screening process. Less than 1% of the refugees registered with the UNHCR or UNRWA are granted what is called 3rd country resettlement in the U.S. More on that later. The President sets the number of refugees admitted into the country annually starting at the beginning of the fiscal year in October. Under President Obama it was 110,000 and now under Trump is 50,000. Refugees are allowed to stay in the United States Permanently once admitted. After a year in the country they are able to apply for a permanent resident card (greencard) and after 5 years apply for citizenship. I will cover requirements for citizenship later on.

I want to draw the distinction between refugees entering the U.S. on I-94 Refugee visas and those pouring across the border in Europe and other countries. Due to geography people fleeing civil war, terrorism and persecution in the Middle East are entering Europe without first being registered by the UNHCR or undergoing additional screenings. The boats of people from North Africa and the Middle East cross perilous stretches of the Mediterranean and arrive in Europe where they hope to seek Asylum, register with the UNHCR and then get the legal status of refugee. This is a point where the colloquial “refugee” versus legal status “refugee” has caused great confusion and fear within the U.S.

I also want to draw the distinction between refugee status and asylum in the United States. ALL REFUGEES COMING TO THE STATES HAVE UNDERGONE A 18+ MONTH SCREENING PROCESS. Asylum seekers arrive in the U.S. and then file for Asylum. This process is much more complicated in that Asylum seekers did not file for Asylum before entering the country. Asylum seekers may come on a temporary visa like a student, work, or travel visa and then apply to stay for well-founded fear of persecution or having actually experience persecution. There are 2 processes for seeking Asylum Affirmative or Defensive. Defensive is filing to prevent being sent back to the person’s country of origin whereas affirmative is filing in advance to be granted indefinite status. Asylum seekers may live freely in the U.S. or be detained pending the results of hearings, and factors like sponsors, families, etc. In 2014 (the most up-to-date reliable stats I could find) list China, Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Nepal, Haiti, and Guatemala,  as the top 10 countries for Asylum seekers to the U.S. with nearly 50,000 asylum applications.

Additionally, USCIS admits people at discretion on humanitarian grounds through Parole. Commonly confused with convicted people leaving prison on parole, USCIS can “use its discretion to authorize parole. Parole allows an individual who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the U.S., to be paroled into the U.S. for a temporary period.” Essentially this is a status given to people in immediate need of shelter but does not give them the indefinite status of Aslyee while waiving screening process of the refugee visa. Until January 2017 people from Cuba fell into this category when President Obama ended “Wet-foot, Dry-foot.” Haitians also fell into this category until September of 2016. There are also special Parole programs (family reunification for Haitians and Cubans, the Central American Minor Refugee/Parole Program and the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program), but I will not go into those at this time, and you can click here if you’d like to read about it on the USCIS website.

And lastly there is a program called SIVs (Special Immigration Visas) these visas are granted to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who help serve U.S. troops overseas and are recommended for resettlement by the U.S. military. This visa is essentially an expedited Refugee visa.

My point in sharing these different statuses with you is to say that 1. These are the legal statuses granted on a humanitarian basis and knowing the difference is crucial in understanding exactly who we are talking about in refugee resettlement, 2. Immigration to the U.S. is extremely complicated, and 3. We are talking about people, human beings with unique circumstances and unique visas that denote differences in their backgrounds.


I have a few other facts and revelations to get us talking about refugees. They do not flow together quite as well as legal statuses and definitions do so I am going to simply list them:

  • Refugees in the United States, though sharing a singular legal status, are not a homogenous group. A businessman from Aleppo has nothing in common with a rural Karen farmer from Burma. While I occasionally will reference refugees as a single segment of the population each group entering the U.S. is unique and within each nationality exist different ethnic and religious groups and within those groups exist people with different genders, sexual orientations, family structures, perspectives, education, histories, values, personalities, ages and aspirations. To group all refugees together severely under represents the individuals making up the whole.
  • Refugee camps are considered international land. If a person is in a refugee camp, they are not considered admitted to a country instead the camps exist as holding place where people are registered and can wait to return to their home country when it is safe, apply to resettle in the country they fled to, or hope to be selected for 3rd country resettlement. As a stateless land zone there are not necessarily schools, jobs, higher education, quality health care, medicine, police, etc. Corruption, rape and other forms of violence are well-documented in camps. Each camp functions slightly differently. You can read about individual stories here and scholarly articles here. I will also recommend a book here: City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence. The point is that refugee camps offer safety compared to the circumstances necessitating people to flee i.e. genocide, terrorism, civil war, etc. but do not necessarily offer a safe space especially for the most vulnerable—women, children, the elderly, those with medical conditions and those with disabilities. When we talk about refugee resettlement in the U.S. we are talking about the most vulnerable cases that are not safe in refugee camps.
  • The United States is not the only country who takes refugees through 3rd country resettlement. The list of countries accepting refugees has grown from 14 in 2005 to 37 in 2016.
  • Americans enjoy privileges of unrestricted travel that few others in the world do. Americans can travel to the entire world relatively easily. Most countries do not require a travel visa or grant travel visas at port of entries to Americans for small fees. Some countries such as Brazil, and China require Americans to submit travel itineraries and prove they have enough money to purchase round-trip airfare as well pay for a visa, but even these requirements are fairly easy to meet and visas are granted to all who meet these requirements. There are few countries Americans cannot go like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but even these countries have exceptions. There is another set of countries it may not be safe to travel to such as Syria, Iraq, parts of Somalia, etc., but we can easily, legally travel to most corners of the globe. This right and ease to travel do not extend to the majority of other countries. I remember venting frustrations to my dad about a client who was terminally ill, too sick to travel and desperately wanting to say goodbye to family members, but the visa process was taking too long and his or her family would likely not be granted admission to the U.S. in time to say goodbye. The process for family reunification takes a minimum of 3 years and usually takes more like 5-7 years so almost 3 years into the process it looks as if it might be too late. He was surprised to find out people cannot even visit the U.S. without visas and those visas are not granted simply, cheaply, universally or easily, especially from some countries. I wanted to touch on this to illuminate the reality of families who will never be reunited and to highlight the need for specific humanitarian visas.
  • Being a refugee is a temporary identity. Refugee status is an indefinite status meaning you could stay in the U.S. forever on refugee status, but most people transition to permanent residents and then on to citizens after 5-10 years in the country. Many of my friends will say things like, “I came over as a refugee, but see myself as a Burmese-American” or “Iraqi-American.” Some will drop their home country and not look back considering themselves entirely American. Others will never quite see themselves as fully American, and hold tightly to their home country identity. Some do return to their home countries when it is safe. Many go back and invest in their home communities, but still live in the U.S. Being a refugee is essentially being internationally homeless in a sense. The home a refugee left does not exist in a recognizable form anymore, and their new home feels foreign because it is. Being a refugee more accurately marks a transition period than a lasting identity. I bring this up because we often speak of refugees as if that is an all-encompassing identity and it really isn’t. I again will urge you to read stories written by refugees or this set, or these children’s books explaining refugees because I am not a refugee and therefore cannot properly explain it, and we should support our refugee friends who write, and because representation is important.
  • And lastly immigration in the U.S. needs overhaul. All sides agree to this, but differ in the application and correct route to pursue. Due to Americans having fewer children than the generations before us, we need immigrants to sustain and grow our populations at desired levels. When we talk about undocumented immigrants, we talk about a huge variety of cases. We are talking about victims of human trafficking to drug smugglers to people who have done everything in their power to remain legal, but have been taken advantage of or are tied up in infuriatingly slow processes or simply refuse to leave their loved ones or truly do not understand the complex system. Immigration also has a HUGE impact on things like national security, the messages we send our allies and enemies, our economy, the underlying social issues in our society like racism and the identity of what it means to be an American. I bring this up to say again that we are talking about human beings who cannot be marginalized to singular identities. We are talking about families and while we like to think that government does not dictate how we treat people, in the case of immigration it definitely does. In all the complexities of sorting people through our semipermeable immigration membrane it is easy to lose the humanity in it. The more we speak about refugees and immigrants coming into the country, the more it starts to sound like a simple unit of import, and that is hauntingly dangerous. So as we go through refugee resettlement and the issues surrounding it, let us keep the people in the story and be ever cognizant that we are talking about real people with real families and real life or death consequences.

In the interest of transparency and information sharing here are the sources of information I used. If you are interested or do not not agree with what I have written, please read them! I have not listed some of the links to books mentioned above because they are linked and do not provide substantial information.  I have tried to stay as close to the original source as possible when citing facts and processes.

  1. UNHCR Resettlement Data
  2. UNHCR Figures at a Glance
  3. USCIS Refugee and Asylum Page
  4. American Immigration Council Fact Sheet on Asylum
  5. USCIS Humanitarian Parole Page
  6. Refuge Council USA 7 Largest Refugee Camps
  7. Smithsonian Magazine: Where are the 50 most populous Refugee Camps
  8. Special Interest Story on a Refugee in Indianapolis by Indianapolis Monthly 
  9. Story of a Young Syrian Entering Canada
  10. UN Peace Keepers role in General and as it Relates to Refugees
  11. Refugee Stories from the UNHCR
  12. UNHCR US Family Reunification Page
  13. US State Department’s SIV information Page
  14. UNHCR Page on 3rd Country Resettlement

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