Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
JLL generously supports MinnPost’s New Americans coverage.

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

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.


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.


“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.


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.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Mary Spetzman on 01/16/2020 - 02:27 pm.

    As a former refugee caseworker for World Relief-Minnesota based out of Richfield, I suggest you contact various refugee organizations to see what happens once a refugee is vetted and assigned to an agency here in MN. I worked with Bosnian refugees.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/17/2020 - 12:38 pm.

    Thank you for the technical side: Then we have the moral side. Do we or do we not have a moral obligation to help our fellow humans on spaceship earth? Seems a lot of folks think not,

  3. Submitted by Sharon Anderson on 01/19/2020 - 06:50 am.

    Minnesota Muslims brutally h
    FAITH FRONT PAGE U.S. WORLD
    Share
    Tweet
    Email
    Print
    Minnesota Muslims brutally honest: ‘We want Shariah’
    Street interviews capture on video anti-American, anti-1st Amendment views
    Leo Hohmann By Leo Hohmann
    Published May 29, 2015 at 9:34pm
    Share
    Tweet
    Email
    Print

    Play Video
    CLICK TO PLAY

    Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” Is Bringing In Millions

    The Cedar Riverside section of Minneapolis is home to the University of Minnesota, some tasty ethnic foods and brutally cold winters. It’s also a known hotbed of Islamic terror recruitment.

    Advertisement – story continues below

    Al-Shabab, the Islamist group based in Somalia, has had a field day there over the past six or seven years.

    Dozens of young Muslims have left the streets of Cedar Riverside, referred to by some Minnesotans as “Little Mogadishu” for its high concentration of Somali refugees, to travel abroad and fight for terrorist groups. Some have joined Somalia’s notorious al-Shabab, which slaughtered 147 Christians at a university in Kenya last month, while others have opted for ISIS in Syria. Their goal is the same – to join their brothers in the fight to establish a Shariah-compliant utopia known as a caliphate.

    But one would expect those who walk the streets of this quiet neighborhood to be a bit less fanatical in their views, right?

    TRENDING: Report: FBI, ICE, Education Department all investigating Omar

    Let the questions begin

    On Friday a camera crew with the David Horowitz Freedom Center released a video posted to Robert Spencer’s blog, Jihad Watch, in which documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz captures Somali men and women on the streets of Cedar Riverside answering simple questions.

    Advertisement – story continues below

    Their answers to questions about Islamic law, American law and issues of peace and freedom were revealing.

    Several of the Muslim men told the interviewer it was “easy” to be Muslim in America. They said persecution was non-existent. They’re free to worship as they please.

    One Somali-American stood out from the rest.

    “This is a free country; that’s the beauty of it. We love America, it’s a great country, freedom of choice, freedom of religion, so we don’t have any issues,” said the neatly dressed man with a sport coat and tie.

    Things devolved from there.

    Advertisement – story continues below

    One young man with dark sunglasses and a big smile, followed by another in a plaid dress shirt, and another with long hair stuffed under a Brooklyn Nets baseball cap, all said they would prefer to live under Islamic law rather than American law.

    “I’m a Muslim. I prefer Shariah law,” the man in the dress shirt said.

    “Shariah law, yes,” said another.

    “Of course, yeah,” said the one in the Nets baseball cap.onest: ‘We want Shariah’ – WND

    • Submitted by kurt nelson on 01/19/2020 - 12:05 pm.

      Hate to break it to you Sharon, but courts across the country already use Sharia law, just like they use Catholic Cannon. Bummer huh.

      This fear by the unthinking on the right is pretty funny when you get down to it. Now, there might be a cadre of nefarious Muslims molding our current judicial system into their image, but I’m going to say that in the 250 years of developing and refining our current system of juris prudence, the thought that it’s suddenly going to shift to Sharia makes me howl with laughter.

Leave a Reply