Chapter 4: An Autobiography of an Idealist

Should the U.S. Lower our Intake of Refugees?; A Fact-Based Perspective from Someone Who Works in the Field

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I have recently begun working in the Refugee Resettlement department of Catholic Charities in Houston. As a result, I have become more familiar with the United States’ refugee intake system. The more I learn, the more I realize how many misconceptions there are about refugees in the United States, so the purpose of this post is to boil down the knowledge I’ve acquired and pass it on.

I’m going to take common conceptions and provide the facts. I won’t try to hide that I am writing this because I believe some of the most vulnerable humans in the world deserve to be viewed fairly, but I will do my best to provide objective information without bias.

  1. “Refugee” is not a broad synonym for migrant, but rather a legal status defined in Article 1(A)(2) of the 1951 UN Convention as “an individual who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group” (definition from International Justice Resource Center, emphasis mine). This means a person who has left his or her home because of persecution or violence must apply for refugee status based on one of those five specific categories. An individual cannot obtain refugee status simply because he or she wants to move to a new country for economic betterment, etc.
  2. We do not need to protect ourselves from a “refugee crisis” similar to what the European Union is experiencing. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding this idea. First, “refugee crisis” is a misnomer. “Refugee” is not the right word because the people coming into Europe are asylum-seekers, which means they have not been granted refugee status before entering, and are hoping to apply for and be granted asylee status once they reach their destination. The problem is European countries are having trouble registering and processing the asylum-seekers because of the sheer number. The U.S. will not have a similar “crisis” because of geographical placement. All incoming refugees are resettled through agencies, met at the airport, and assigned case managers to help them with their transition into the country.  Asylum-seekers are less common, and a different story entirely.
  3. If you think we should lower our intake of refugees until we can make sure they will go through a proper vetting process, I hope you can tell me what the current process is. The current refugee screening process takes up to two years and is excruciatingly extensive. Don’t believe me? Check out this infographic from the White House. And that’s only after a refugee is set to be resettled in the U.S. After a refugee is granted refugee status in a refugee camp in the country they have fled to (their “second country”), he or she must apply to be resettled in a third country. Many do not apply because they are hoping to return to their own homeland, or because they are waiting and hoping to be reunited with loved ones. Only about 1% of legal refugees are resettled, and while a refugee can state his or her preference for a third country, ultimately, he or she cannot choose where to go. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a potential terrorist hoping to infiltrate the U.S. to wait years to have his or her application processed, only to be resettled in Australia or Sweden. As a result, the resettlement program is an unlikely avenue for terrorists.
  4. American refugee resettlement programs are based on “early self-sufficiency.” Refugees are expected to have a job and be financially self-sufficient within three to six months. While funds are initially allocated to refugees through resettlement agencies, this is only to help them get on their feet so they can become full citizens of their new country, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.
  5. The Church calls for Catholics and other Christians to welcome refugees. While I realize not everyone recognizes the authority of the Catholic Church, I think it is worth noting our pope has called on the U.S. specifically to welcome refugees, and that of the refugees accepted currently, about 30% are resettled through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and many others through other Christian-based voluntary agencies. For biblical basis, see Matthew 25:35 (“For I was a stranger, and you took me in.”) and the Good Samaritan parable. Welcoming refugees is loving your neighbor as yourself. As Pope Francis said, “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”

All this barely scratches the surface of the complexities of refugee resettlement, but I hope it helps with some common misconceptions. I’m sure I’ll be making more posts on the topic, so comments and questions are always welcome. In the meantime, here’s a couple of resources. The second one is a much better fact sheet than my post, but slightly longer.

What does it mean to be a refugee? – Benedetta Berti and Evelien Borgman
Frequently Asked Questions: Ten Facts about Refugee Resettlement – Migration Policy Institute
About Refugee Resettlement – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)


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