Lack of knowledge about the U.S. refugee resettlement process inspired a panel discussion last Friday during the 84th annual U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) winter meeting.

“It became very clear this last fall after the tragic events in Paris and San Bernardino that a lot of people don’t know much about our refugee resettlement process – how individuals qualify to become refugees, how they are vetted and how they get into our communities,” noted Anaheim, California, mayor Tom Tait, who is chair of the USCM immigration taskforce.

The taskforce invited officials from the State Department, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to share with U.S. mayors about their agency’s role in the process.

“There are nearly 20 million refugees in the world; the vast majority of these refugees will receive support in the country to which they fled until they can voluntarily and safely return home,” said Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) in his opening remarks.

While the U.S. accepts refugees – “primarily those who are most vulnerable” – the focus is on overseas aid initiatives, he explained, noting that the U.S. “has provided over $4.5 billion in humanitarian assistance since the [Syrian] refugee crisis began.”

The U.S. State Department reports that 3.2 million refugees have been resettled to the U.S. since 1975. Fewer than 70,000 have been resettled in 2015 – 1,682 from Syria.

Barbara Strack, chief of the Refugees Affairs Division at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the Department of Homeland Security, addressed the refugee selection process.

The U.S. works with the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) in selecting the most vulnerable refugees to be vetted for U.S. resettlement.

USCIS staff “fan out around the world to the locations where refugees live and we conduct one-on-one in-person interviews in those locations,” she explained, travelling to between 48 and 60 locations annually.

These interviews have two goals: “We are determining, is the person a refugee under U.S. law … [and] checking on whether they are admissible … under U.S. immigration law.”

This includes vetting for criminal history, communicable diseases and possible national security threats.

The screening process is designed to protect national security and meet established “humanitarian mandates,” Stark noted.

This involves interagency collaboration to conduct both biographic (names, personal document, interviews and so on) and biometric (watch lists, fingerprint records and so on) reviews.

USCIS has published an overview of the screening process.

Henshaw stressed that “our number one concern is security” in the refugee vetting process, noting that “applicants to the [U.S. resettlement program] are subject to more intensive screening than any other type of traveler to the U.S.”

“Someone that was trying to get into [the U.S. refugee] system,” he said, “would have registered as a refugee, sat around for months, sometimes years, and then be lucky enough to be one of the 1 percent; and then we run them through this very extensive system to make sure they’re not a security threat.”

Once refugees arrive in the U.S., Henshaw added, the program focuses on making refugees “economically self-sufficient as quickly as possible” and helping them integrate successful into U.S. society.

Refugees can seek work from the first day they arrive. They must apply for permanent residence status after one year and they can apply for citizenship after five years.

Robert Carey, director of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), highlighted the positive contributions of refugees and noted the importance of public-private collaboration.

“Refugees come bringing talent, drive; they start businesses at very high rates; they go to work quite quickly; they pay taxes; they become involved as members of society; and they are an asset,” he emphasized.

Carey explained that ORR works across the U.S. to coordinate services for refugees – such as health screenings and English language classes – and to assist with their community integration.

“The primary directive [for ORR] is to ensure that refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible,” he said.

“Partnership is an essential part of the program,” Carey noted, citing affiliate organizations that represent “virtually every major mainstream religious denomination.”

Volunteer agencies listed on the ORR website include Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The people … who the U.S. program brings here [as refugees] are not coming here for economic betterment,” Carey commented, “They are coming here to save their lives and the lives of their children.”

Editor’s note:’s documentary, “Gospel Without Borders,” addresses immigration by separating myth from fact and examining what the Bible says about treatment of the “stranger.” A free PDF resource sheet on immigration and immigration reform is available here. Related articles can be accessed using the following keywords: Immigration, Migrants and Refugees.

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