Syrian refugee crisis and U.S. immigration law

What is happening in Syria:

In April 2011, peaceful protests inspired by the “Arab spring” revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia occurred in Syria challenging the dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his form of government. First, the government killed activists, then they began killing, raping, kidnapping, and torturing activists and their family members. They mutilated and killed children, leaving their bodies on the sides of the roads. Government troops opened fire on protests.

The civilians starting defending themselves, eventually organizing into rebel groups, to which the government responded by deploying troops to the neighborhoods trying to get the civilians to submit by terrorizing them. Fighters from other countries joined the rebel forces, some freedom fighters and some jihadists who oppose Syria’s secular government. This has evolved into an extremely violent civil war that has death tolls around 100,000 and climbing.

Since the violence began, more than 12 million of Syria’s 22 million residents have been forced to flee their homes.

Syrian refugees statistics

As of today, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) has registered 4,289,792 Syrian refugees.

About 3-4 million Syrians have fled to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About 6.5 million are internally displaced. More than 700,000 Syrians have risked their lives to travel to Europe.

50.3% are females and about 50% are children.

According to the European Union Institute Migration Policy Centre, about 150,000 Syrian refugees have declared asylum in the European Union. Member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000, mostly in Germany.

The U.S. has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, but there is a bill in Congress trying to block the process. At this time, there are just over 2,000 Syrian refugees in the United States since the civil war began in 2011.

How the refugee process works

Definition of refugee

The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The United States Immigration and Nationality Act Section 101(a)(42)(A) defines refugee as “any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person las habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Refugee v. asylum seeker

Refugees and asylees similarly must have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the protected grounds – race, religion, nationality, membership in a particularly social group, or political opinion– and be unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin based on this persecution.

There are, however, a few key differences.

1. A refugee must be a person seeking asylum who is outside of the United States. An asylum seeker is a person who is already in the United States or at a port-of-entry.

2. A refugee’s case must be one of special humanitarian concern. Anyone who is in the United States who fears persecution in their home country can apply for asylum.

3. A refugee must be admissible under the U.S. immigration laws. An asylum seeker does not need to meet the same admissibility requirements or have any lawful immigration status.

Presidential Determination

Each year, the Executive Branch officials review the refugee situations in the world and discuss the humanitarian concerns. They made a proposal called the “presidential determination” that must be signed by the President. This proposal creates three priority categories for accepting refugees.

Priority 1: Cases that are identified and referred to the program by the UNHCR or a designated NGO.

Priority 2: Groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.

Priority 3: Family reunification cases.

Overview of the Process

1. Offices of the UNHCR screen and registers refugees. There are UNHCR offices all over the world. Many Syrians are registering in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Others are registering in European countries.

2. Once registered, the Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) conduct a prescreening interview and initiate biographic checks.

3. Next, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reviews the results from RSC, conducts eligibility interviews, and captures biometrics (fingerprints and a photograph). USCIS checks the biometrics results and requests additional biographic checks, as needed.

4. USCIS then reviews the special refugee registration form (Form I-590) and conducts security checks. When the security results are received and clear, USCIS will approve the registration.

5. RSC processes cases approved by USCIS by coordinating travel, medical and sponsorship by a resettlement agency in the United States.

6. RSC and/or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screens the refugees’ travel information prior to refugees boarding their flights.

7. Once at the port-of-entry, the CBP screens the refugees to see if they are admissible to the United States based on the federal immigration laws. Grounds of inadmissibility include several security, health, and criminal related grounds

Agencies involved in the process

The process of resettling refugees in the United States is managed by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), an interagency effort involving several governmental and non-governmental partners in the U.S. and abroad. These groups and their respective functions include the following:

United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The UNHCR refers cases to the USRAP for resettlement and provides information regarding the worldwide refugee situation.

Resttlement Support Centers. RSC works with the U.S. Department of State, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations to carry out administrative and processing functions, such as file preparation, storage, data collection, and coordinating travel and services for refugees.

Department of Homeland Security. Two sub-agencies of DHS, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) work together as part of USRAP. USCIS is tasked with adjudicating applications for refugee status and reviewing case decisions. CBP screens arriving refugees at the port-of-entry to see if they are can be admitted into the United States based on grounds of inadmissibility contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Department of Health and Human Services/Office of Refugee Resettlement. The ORR administers domestic resettlement benefits for arriving refugees.

International Organization for Migration (IOM)- Department of State contracts serve primarily as the travel agent for USRAP in certain locations.

Non-governmental organizations- NGOs provide resettlement assistance and services to arriving refugees.

Security Measure Details

Some politicians and civilians have expressed concern about the security of allowing in thousands of Syrian refugees when the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations have been infiltrating Syria and fighting the Assad regime. It is important to keep in mind that there is a very expensive security check system in place to screen potential refugees. In fact, the security screening process is heightened for Syrian refugees. Also, the refugee process takes about 18-24 months.

USCIS recently released a fact sheet about the process which includes the following information about security screening measures:

Department of State Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)
CLASS is a State name-check database that posts use to access critical information for visa adjudication. The system contains records provided by numerous agencies and includes information on persons with visa refusals, immigration violations, criminal histories, and terrorism concerns, as well as intelligence information and child support enforcement data. In addition to containing information from DOS sources, sources for information in CLASS includes NCTC/TSC (terrorist watch lists), TECS, Interpol, DEA, HHS and FBI (extracts of the NCIC Wanted Person, Immigration Violator, Foreign Fugitive Files, VGTOF, and the Interstate Identification Index). CLASS name checks are initiated by DOS for all refugee applicants at the time of pre-screening by the the RSC. Name checks are conducted on the applicant’s primary names as well as any aliases. Responses are received prior to interview and possible matches to applicants are reviewed and adjudicated by USCIS Headquarters. Evidence of the response is forwarded for inclusion in the case file. If a new name or alias is identified at the interview, USCIS requests another CLASS name check on the new name, and places the case on hold until that response is received.

Security Advisory Opinion (SAO)
The SAO is a DOS-initiated biographic check conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence community partners. SAO name checks are initiated at the time of pre-screening by the RSC for the groups and nationalities designated by the U.S. government as requiring this higher level check. SAOs are processed, and a response must be received prior to finalizing the decision. If there is a new name or alias identified at the interview, USCIS requests that another SAO be conducted on the new name, and places the case on hold until that response is received.

Interagency Checks (IAC)
The IAC consists of screening biographic data, including names, dates of birth and other data points of all refugee applicants within designated age ranges. This information is captured at the time of pre-screening and is provided to intelligence community partners. This screening procedure was initiated in 2008 and has expanded over time to include a broader range of holdings. These checks occur throughout the process

FBI Fingerprint Check through Next Generation Identification (NGI)
Recurring biometric record checks pertaining to criminal history and previous immigration data.

DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT – f/n/a US-VISIT)
A biometric record check related to travel and immigration history as well as immigration violations, and law enforcement and national security concerns. Enrollment in IDENT also allows CBP to confirm identity at the port of entry.

DoD Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency (DFBA)’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS)
A biometric record check of DoD holdings collected in areas of conflict (predominantly Iraq and Afghanistan). DoD screening began in 2007 for Iraqi applicants has now been expanded to all nationalities. CBP’s National Targeting Center-Passenger (NTC-P) conducts biographic vetting of all ABIS biometric matches (both derogatory and benign) against various classified and unclassified U.S. Government databases.

Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process (CARRP). During the adjudication of any USCIS benefit, if any national security concerns are raised, either based on security and background checks or personal interviews or other testimony, USCIS conducts an additional review through the internal CARRP process.

Syria Enhanced Review USCIS’ Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate and Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) have collaborated to provide enhanced review of certain Syrian cases. This review involves FDNS providing intelligence-driven support to refugee adjudicators, including threat identification, lines of inquiry, monitoring watch lists and disseminating intelligence information reports on those applicants determined to present a national security threat.

CBP Vetting Applicants approved for refugee resettlement must be inspected and determined admissible to the United States by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before being admitted as a refugee. CBP receives a manifest of all approved individuals who have made reservations to travel to the United States. CBP receives this manifest eight days before the scheduled travel. CBP performs initial vetting of the individuals before they arrive at a port of entry and conducts an inspection additional background checks of these individuals upon arrival at a U.S. Port of Entry.

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