Refugee Resettlement Primer: From Over There to the United States

Categories Immigration, Ithaca

By Josh Brokaw

Catholic Charities of Tompkins & Tioga counties announced on Tuesday, Feb. 14, that the first family to come through its new refugee resettlement program will be arriving in upstate New York by the end of February.

The Afghan family of six are coming to the United States under the “special immigrant visa” [SIV] program, a resettlement option for translators who have served with the U.S. military or its contractors during the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The process of getting a SIV as a former U.S. military employee is a trial in itself that Truthsayers will dive into in a future story.

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The process of resettling SIV holders is largely operated through the channels of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, a State Department program that involves the work of multiple non-government agencies to get each and every refugee to their new home. Thousands of refugees have been resettled in the United States every year since 1975, with 84,995 refugees resettled in fiscal year 2016 (October 2015 – September 2016), not including several thousand more who came through the SIV program. Over 3 million refugees have come through the program in total since 1975, with a high of 207,000 in 1980 and a low of 27,110 in 2002.

Refugees are usually referred to the U.S. government by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, or sometimes a U.S. embassy or a non-governmental organization [NGO], and then the refugee must go to one of nine “resettlement support centers” operated by a NGO and funded by the State Department.

There, biographical information is collected, and the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services interviews applicants. The refugees are screened by various agencies – the FBI, Homeland Security, the departments of Defense and State and the “intelligence community” – and subjected to biometric data collection, cultural classes, and medical exams. The whole process, on average, takes 18 to 24 months.

Once refugees are cleared by this process, they are entered into the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, a federal database. It’s at this point that American resettlement agencies come into the picture.

The executive order President Trump signed on Jan. 27 – officially called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” – could be “relatively disastrous” to refugee resettlement agencies, according to William Canny, director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee program. Canny spoke to Truthsayers on Feb. 10.

Read More: ‘It’s a Sin:’ Ithacans Rally After Trump Immigration Order

“The agencies who are out there doing resettling are reimbursed per refugee arrival,” Canny said. “When you stop the flow of refugees into those agencies you also stop reimbursements upon which those agencies made their annual budgets and planned to pay staff.”

With the implementation of Trump’s executive order uncertain, Canny’s agency and others are unsure how the flow of refugees will continue in the near future.

“The State Department does this in chunks,” Canny said. “You’ll remember there were 872 people who did come forward after the executive order: they had sold their belongings and left their house. They’re lining up some hundreds of people to come this week, ever since the injunction was brought in on the order. We hope, but can’t verify for those people in a similar situation that once they left their house, sold their goods, left the refugee camp and are making their way to their airport to get on a flight that, whenever the injunction is lifted, for humane purposes those people would come forward.”

USRAP Process Flowchart


The USCCB’s refugee program is the largest of the nine voluntary agencies who participate in refugee admissions: the initial plan for fiscal year 2017 — October 2016 through September 2017 — was for 110,000 people total to immigrate, with USCCB’s affiliate agencies resettling 24 percent of the total. Trump’s executive order, if upheld as written, limits the total to 50,000 refugees, with about 35,000 having already immigrated this year.

USCCB, like all the voluntary agencies, establish budgets and agreements with the government at the beginning of a fiscal year that “indicate the number of refugees that would come through us and would go out to our affiliates,” Canny said.

At that time, the resettlement agencies “wouldn’t necessarily know the countries” refugees will be coming from, Canny said. “We know the government  is expected to draw down so many refugees by region, then by country to some degree.”

The USCCB and the other eight agencies meet weekly to go over new entries into the “WRAPS” refugee database and figure out which has capacity to take in each one.

“If they are going to family in the U.S., it’s predetermined where they’ll go,” Canny said.

Beyond rejoining family, each agency’s language capacity and other considerations, like medical needs or mental health, are weighed. For example, a victim of torture might be sent to an affiliate near a center for victims of torture, Canny said. From there, USCCB communicates with its affiliates to place a refugee.

Read More: Ithaca Refugee Resettlement A Go

Sue Chaffee, director of the Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga immigrant services program, says a pre-arrival case manager at USCCB “assigns a case to us” and “we can either accept it or reject it.”

“We are sent a verification package that includes a Bio Data Acceptance/Rejection form,” Chaffee wrote Truthsayers via email. “When we verify that we accept a case, we wait to receive a Case Assurance Report showing that USCCB and the Refugee Processing Center have also approved for this case to come to us. After a case has been assured and has been scheduled to arrive, we will see the flight information on our end …  We receive email alerts that more or less tells us to look at the data base we have through USCCB to see if a new case has been assigned to us or if there are any updates regarding that case.”

Flights are scheduled by the International Organization for Migration [IOM], a NGO that typically doesn’t communicate directly with the local agencies “unless there is some sort of flight or travel plan change that happens after hours,” writes Jim Morris, associate vice president for family services at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center.

“In that case the IOM reaches out to the emergency contact at the resettlement agency by cell phone,” Morris said. “For instance, here in Rochester our refugees typically arrive at night. We sometimes go to the airport at late at night only to get a call from the IOM that our refugee family is not coming because they missed their connection at JFK and then they give us their new booking information.”

From their arrival in New York, the refugee is in the hands of a local resettlement agency like Catholic Charities and get to the work of settling down in America.

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Twitter: @jdbrokaw

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