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Your questions about the U.S. refugee program, answered

No, refugees don’t receive free housing. Here are the basics of the program.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

This week, a federal judge temporarily blocked an executive order from President Donald Trump seeking to give local governments more discretion over refugee resettlement.

Minnesota counties had been voting on whether or not to allow refugees to be resettled in their jurisdictions for weeks. As of publication, 23 counties had voted in favor of allowing resettlement in their jurisdictions and one, Beltrami County, had voted against it.

After we wrote last week about which counties refugees had moved to in the last decade, we got some questions from readers — and had some of our own — about how the refugee program works. Here are some answers from Rachele King, the state refugee coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

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What is a refugee?

People often get confused over the definition of refugee. The term has different meanings depending on the context.

In a global context, the United Nations defines a refugee as a person who’s fled their home country due to persecution (often due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group), war or violence.

“They can’t go back and their home government is either unwilling or unable to protect them,” King said. Between 25 million and 26 million people around the world currently meet that definition.

In the context of U.S. immigration, refugee is a specific legal immigration status, distinct from other legal immigration categories like asylees or green card holders.

“All refugees are immigrants, all immigrants are not refugees,” King said.

For legal purposes, a refugee is a person that meets the definition above and is invited to come to the United States following a vetting period through the refugee program. Refugee status is a permanent status with a path toward U.S. citizenship after five years.

How does a person get refugee status?

In most cases, the U.S. Department of State selects which of the 25 million-plus people globally that meet refugee criteria to invite to the country. For the 2020 fiscal year, the number of refugees admitted is capped at 18,000, down from 30,000 in FY 2019.

The U.S. government has in-person interviews with every person considered for refugee resettlement to ensure they meet the definition of a refugee, King said. The candidate also goes through an extensive security vetting process.

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“I think there’s 17 different international security checks that happen with federal and international bureaus,” King said.

There’s also a health screening process to ensure new arrivals aren’t carrying communicable diseases.

Who decides where refugees are resettled?

Once a person has been approved for refugee status, the U.S. Department of State, in cooperation with nine national nonprofits that place refugees through their local affiliates, decide where refugees go within the U.S.

Placing people where they have family and friends is a priority. In placement, officials also consider the capacity of local agencies and communities.

People with refugee status sign a promissory note to pay back the cost of their plane ticket to the U.S., and start receiving bills soon after arriving.

What happens when refugees arrive in the U.S.?

Local affiliates of the nine nonprofits the federal government works with meet new arrivals at the airport, make sure they have a safe, secure place to go and help connect them with services and support.

Refugees qualify for some support when they arrive. Refugees each get a one-time $1,175 per-person cash grant from the federal government. That helps them buy things like beds or school supplies, or covers rent. Federal and state agencies also partner to provide employment and integration services for five years after refugees arrive.

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Though they are noncitizens, refugees do qualify for public benefits like SNAP (formerly food stamps), and public housing, provided they meet criteria, but they aren’t given any priority in those programs, King said.

Can people with refugee status move once they’ve arrived?

Trump’s executive order gives local governments some discretion as to where refugees can be formally placed, but once they land, refugees can move freely.

How is a refugee different from an asylee?

This year, there’s been lots of news coverage about people from Central America reaching the U.S.-Mexico border to present themselves to government officials and ask for asylum.

Like refugees, asylees have to meet the criteria of being unsafe in their home countries. “The situations may have been similar in that they had been fleeing persecution, but the process is very different,” King said.

Refugees apply for status overseas, while asylees enter the U.S. and then ask for the status and go through the process, which involves immigration courts rather than going through the State Department refugee process.

Does anyone know how much it costs communities to take in refugees?

Researchers have found cost-benefit analyses of the refugee program to be challenging.

A 2018 report from the Legislative Auditor in Minnesota found “significant limitations” in the availability of data that would be needed to analyze the cost of refugee resettlement.

A 2018 Colorado Department of Human Services report found local and state governments received $1.23 for every $1 the state spent on refugee resettlement, and that every $1 spent on refugee assistance generated $1.68 in economic activity in Colorado.

One misperception about refugees is that they don’t pay taxes or they get free housing. That’s not the case, King said.

“First and foremost, people enter the workforce very quickly and become contributors to our economy and the expansion of our tax base,” she said.

How do people with refugee status get citizenship?

Pending additional security checks, refugees become lawful permanent residents one year after arriving in the U.S. After being in the country for five years, people who have been granted lawful permanent residency can become naturalized citizens. After they apply, refugees who hope to become U.S. citizens undergo more background checks, a civics exam and a language test.