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Seven things to know about refugee resettlement

Editor's Note: Trinity's own Kimberly Cooper—who has many years of experience in refugee resettlement—offers up seven facts to help you talk about the refugee crisis.

This country is extraordinarily polarized right now over the issue of refugee resettlement. There are people of many different faiths, political views, and races/ethnicities voicing opinions about those seeking resettlement. Some of these stances are grounded in fact. Others are not. Many people in our community simply don’t understand the United States Refugee Program (USRP). If you acquaint yourself with the seven facts below, you’ll be equipped to respond to fear with calm, reasoned assurance. You can change the conversation. You can #BePeace.

First things first: Many people feel startled by the suddenness of the refugee crisis in Europe. I have heard people say they feel unprepared to face a similar deluge of people. However, the United States has been resettling refugees for many decades and began putting a structure into place in 1980 with the passing of the Refugee Act. This means that we have been evolving and honing a program of resettlement for more than three decades. There hasn’t been as much attention on it throughout this time, but Muslims have been resettling here since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Not a single terrorist attack has been perpetrated by a person with refugee status in the United States.

The second thing to clear up is that “refugee” is a legal designation. It doesn’t mean anyone fleeing from any fear. People that face natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina do not qualify. People that have to leave their own homes, but not their own country, do not qualify. Women discriminated against by virtue of being female do not qualify.  And people that cross our borders without documentation do not qualify. The definition of a refugee has been set both internationally and within the U.S. as someone fleeing their country of origin out of fear for their life due to their race, ethnicity, religion or political views. Syrians meet this designation both for political reasons and religious persecution. They are only one of many groups fleeing Muslim extremists.

This brings me to the third thing that needs to be cleared up: The U.S. isn’t resettling all of the 50 million refugees in the world today. The UNHCR—The U.N. Refugee Agency—initially interviews all people seeking refugee status as the very first step in a very long process. Every single adult is interviewed before being given the designation of refugee. There are three possible outcomes: 

1. They go back home to their country.
2. They remain in the country of asylum permanently.
3. They are permanently resettled in a third country.

If UNHCR staff believe that a refugee family meet the criteria for resettlement, they refer them to a country such as Australia, the U.S., Canada or the European Union.  This is not the point at which refugees come to America.

The fourth point is that all refugees are interviewed repeatedly by U.S. government employees and Citizenship and Immigration Services agents. Their names and fingerprints are put through Interpol, FBI and CIA databases. I have known women and children arriving in the U.S. after five years of screenings who have to wait for husbands and adult sons to join them after more screenings. They are also given thorough medical exams. Finally after everything has cleared, they are given documentation to travel to the United States.

The fifth point is that refugees do not decide where in the U.S. they will be resettled. There are only a few airports in the U.S. equipped to process them. They will enter either in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. They are questioned again before boarding a plane to a predetermined city with an agency contracted by the Department of State to help them resettle. The agency initiates more health screenings after arrival. However, the refugees, as permanent residents are free to visit or reside in any state in the U.S. with the same rights and responsibilities as any other resident.

The sixth point is that after arrival the contracted agency is given approximately three months of funding to house, meet basic needs, and find employment for that refugee family. At the end of three months refugees are expected to be self-sufficient. The amazing thing is that, here in Texas, we have maintained a success rate of close to 90%. Which means that many refugees are working and paying taxes after only 90 days of residence. I, personally, know several who have continued their education and started businesses which now employ Americans that are not easily employable. I also know refugees who have chosen to serve in our military out of a sense of gratitude for the life they have been given.

The last thing to clear up is that governors in the U.S. do not have any legal authority over the USRP. It is a congressionally mandated program that is renewed each fiscal year beginning October 1. The Department of State determines how many refugees can enter in any given year. No one reports to the governors on the nationality or religion of said refugees. It is also illegal to discriminate and prevent access to services based on nationality or religion as stated in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

“Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins] contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination.”

There is a lot to fear in our society today. But, as people of faith we are called to focus our eyes on Christ. I have seen Christ looking back at me through the eyes of refugees. I have witnessed miracles happen in the lives of refugees. 

I’m glad that Trinity Episcopal Church has stepped firmly into the advocate camp. We are sponsoring a family of 10 refugees, we have written letters to our lawmakers giving our support, and we are providing financial assistance to Episcopal Relief and Development to help the refugees without a permanent solution to their situation.

We—Trinity—are the helping hands and hearts welcoming the stranger and taking them in (Matthew 25:35). Some people may not be able to overcome their fear or their dislike of the different. But we can with the help of the Holy Spirit.