States' Role in Refugee Resettlement
The world took a collective gasp at a deadly and coordinated terrorist strike in Paris, France, Nov. 13. Initial reports suggested that one of the terrorists was an asylum seeker fleeing Syria who had entered Europe through Greece, though the Syrian passport found near his remains was later deemed to be a fake. With more than a hundred dead in Paris, state leaders have had mixed reactions on what the proper response should be towards refugee resettlement in America.
Congress took a major step in crafting a national strategy towards refugee resettlement when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980. The legislation established a partnership—between the federal government, states, local communities and nonprofit resettlement agencies—to address the needs of refugees.
The act authorizes the president, after consulting with Congress, to establish an annual refugee ceiling. Since the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. has maintained a ceiling of 70,000 refugees. After calls from human rights organizations and the international community to do more for Syrians escaping war in their country, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced in September that the administration planned to raise the U.S. refugee ceiling to 85,000, with the goal of admitting at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.
The process for admitting refugees is complex and time consuming. It begins with a refugee candidate either submitting an application to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—also known as UNHCR—or petitioning directly to the U.S. government for protected status. About 75 percent of refugees accepted into America were originally referred by the UNHCR.
Once referred, the refugee candidate must remain overseas while undergoing a screening process during which independent contractors working for the State Department interview the refugee candidate and the candidate’s family to determine eligibility. During this process, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center, conducts rigorous criminal and medical background checks that take an average of 18 to 24 months to complete.
Under Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, refugees can be prevented from entering the U.S. due to criminal background, national security reasons or medical problems. Refugee candidates who have any ties to terrorism—including providing material support such as funding and housing to terrorists—are ineligible to enter the U.S.
Once granted refugee status, the U.S. Department of State works with nine domestic resettlement agencies to determine the optimal location for placement. Representatives from each agency meet once a week in Virginia to review the refugees’ biographies and other case records. The resettlement agencies then coordinate with 190 communities throughout the U.S. that accept refugees to find the best location.
The Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, alongside local refugee resettlement organizations, lead efforts in providing housing and basic needs for the first 30 to 90 days after admission to the United States, as well as educating refugees on American culture and local law enforcement.
Each state is organized differently when it comes to refugee resettlement. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia administer federal funds though a state-run agency, while five states utilize public-private partnerships. Twelve states take part in the Wilson-Fish program, contracting the services to independent, nonprofit organizations. Wyoming is the only state not to have a refugee resettlement program.
In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, many states are concerned with the refugee resettlement program. Initial reports suggested that one of the attackers travelled through Greece with a Syrian passport, posing as a refugee. Later the European Union’s Chief Diplomat Federica Mogherini countered this claim saying, “The profile of the terrorists so far identified tells us this is an internal threat. It is all EU citizens so far. This can change with the hours, but so far it is quite clear it is an issue of internal domestic security.”
Nevertheless, the possibility of a terrorist entering the U.S. posed as a refugee has sparked concern among governors and state legislators across the country. According to various reports, the majority of governors have announced their opposition to admitting Syrian refugees into their states.
“Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees—any one of whom could be connected to terrorism—being resettled in Texas,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbott in a letter to President Obama. “Effective today, I am directing the Texas Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the state of Texas.”
Experts say that states withdrawing or diverting federal funding meant for refugee resettlement programs may be in violation of federal contracts. In addition, states that prevent a particular group of people from resettling in their state also may be in violation of U.S. anti-discrimination laws.
But not all state officials agree with this stance; some have insisted that they would continue admitting refugees in their states. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, wants “Pennsylvania to continue to build on its rich history of accepting immigrants and refugees from around the world,” according to spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan. “But he is also committed to protecting Pennsylvanians and will work with the federal government to ensure it is taking every precaution necessary in screening those families coming into the country.”
President Obama has not wavered in his determination to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. for FY2016. On Thursday, Nov. 19, the U.S. House passed a measure that would further tighten the screening process for Syrian refugees, one that would require the director of the FBI, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to confirm that each Iraqi and Syrian refugee applicant poses no security threat. The Senate is expected to take up the measure after the Thanksgiving Day recess, but its fate is far from certain. President Obama has threatened to veto any such bill that makes it to his desk.