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Route to Safety: The Path and Challenges of a Refugee Coming to the U.S.A.

By: Dulce Ana Maria Camargo Gonzalez, Intern, Immigrant Food

In 2021 The UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) established that there are 26.4 million refugees around the world (UNHCR, 2021). For context – that is larger than the population of Finland, Portugal, Uruguay, and Qatar together! People usually become refugees because of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Trying to escape these situations that put their lives in danger, refugees look for protection elsewhere, usually in neighboring countries, but also in countries that are far away from their own. Nevertheless, in both cases, achieving this protection is not as easy as it sounds, and the transition between seeking safety, and achieving it is neither smooth nor short. The process for a refugee to be accepted as one, and taken to safety in the United States can take between 18 and 24 months (National Immigration Forum, 2020). These long periods are in part due to the large number of cases that need to be processed, but also because of the number of agencies, background checks, and interviews that individuals have to go through, before being able to travel to the United States. 

Refugees go through some of the most rigorous processes to obtain visa status. First, they have to submit their petition to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; the UNHCR is in charge of determining if an individual is eligible for refugee status. UNHCR first determines whether it’s safe to return to the person’s home country, or if they should pursue local integration, or receive permanent resettlement in a third country (U.S Department Of State). But what grants an individual the right to be labeled as a refugee? The UNHCR follows the international law definition, which establishes that “refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country” (UNHCR, 2021). After approval, refugees eligible for resettlement in a third country will continue an extensive process. Today, less than one percent of refugees are considered for resettlement (International Rescue Committee, 2022)! Once the refugee is considered for resettlement, processing times within resettlement countries can be a challenge.  

In the case of the United States, each year, the president proposes to Congress the maximum number of refugees to be admitted into the country. In the report submitted both houses of Congress, the president not only proposes the number of refugees, but also establishes the regions/countries where they come from, and the anticipated social, economic, and demographic impact of their admission (U.S Department of State, 2021). Historically, The United States has welcomed many refugees, and established itself as a large resettlement destination; however, in 2017, for the first time in modern history, the United States settled fewer refugees than the rest of the world (American Immigration Council, 2021). In September 2021, the Biden administration proposed a refugee ceiling of 125,000 people, Africa having the largest ceiling of all regions – 40,000- but also expecting a higher influx of refugees from Afghanistan. (U.S Department of State, 2021). On the other hand, as the situation in Ukraine did not escalate until after the presentation of the presidential report, if Ukrainian refugees are resettled in the United States, they most likely will be under the Unallocated Reserve that was established at a maximum of 10,000 individuals for 2022 (U.S Department of State, 2021). 

Now, apart from the definitions and the numbers, the journey of a refugee includes multiple steps. For refugees who are going to the United States for resettlement, there are five (5) main steps. First, the refugee must be referred to the U.S for resettlement by an U.S Embassy or partner NGO, and their case is processed by a Resettlement Support Center (RSC), where they screen the person and make sure that their nationality and profile meet the criteria listed on the presidential report to Congress for that fiscal year. These centers also help refugees prepare for interviews with the Department of Homeland Security’s US Citizenship and Immigration Services (DHS/USCIS). The next step is to do the interview; during this period, if denied resettlement, the refugee is not able to appeal the decision, and their case will only be reconsidered if new information is presented. If approved by USCIS, the next steps are additional medical and security checks, these include, but are not limited to the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD), and screenings for tuberculosis. When the refugee -individual and/or family- is cleared from these organizations, travel arrangements will be made, with the leadership of resettlement agencies. For this step of the process, refugees will receive an interest-free loan to cover the transportation costs to the U.S. (Refugee Council USA, 2022) The final step in the process is the arrival and cultural orientation. Before arriving in the United States, refugees have a cultural orientation, available at  in-person sessions, as well as online on the RSC website, a “Welcome to the United States” book, and a mobile app (U.S. Department of State). Once refugees arrive in the U.S, the Reception and Placement program will help them get settled for the first three months. Refugees will receive initial housing, and employment authorization, young individuals will be enrolled in school, and the family will be connected to local social and language services. (U.S. Department of State). 


The consequences of all the steps in this process can be easily identified in the case of Afghan refugees. As of December of 2021, more than 74,500 Afghans were authorized to be in the United States, and although grateful, a lot of them felt frustrated with the U.S Immigration system as it is difficult to navigate, and even U.S officials stated that the system was not prepared  to help them (Jakes, 2021). Again, many of these individuals are moving across borders with their families seeking protection from immediate threats. Thus, long waiting and processing times only add to the challenges and frustrations of the situation. Moreover, it is important to have in mind the fact that challenges do not cease once refugees arrive to the resettlement country. Resettlement agencies and the Reception and Placement program will assist refugees -individuals and/or families- settling down in the United States for the first 90 days after their arriva; and although their assistance is incredibly important, assuring a successful resettlement does not only depend on getting an employment authorization, a social security number, or education for the youth. Being aware of this, the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S Department of Health & Human Services created a number of resources for refugees, to accommodate their needs long term. Some of these resources include, Ethnic Community Self-Help, the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Project (RAPP), the Cash and Medical Assistance (CMA) grant, the Matching Grant program, and the Individual Development Accounts (IDA) Program (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2022). 

The experience of refugees is incredibly difficult. Less than one percent of all those who apply to become refugees are actually considered for resettlement. That means that only a fraction of people wanting to flee their homes due to perceived violence, persecution and difficult environments, are actually considered by the United Nations. Their journey, both physically, legally, and emotionally, is long and difficult. They often face waiting periods of more than two years, and even when they go through all the legal steps, many resettlement countries, first and foremost the United States, don’t provide them with enough support to adapt and assimilate into their new communities. It’s often up to the brave immigrant-service NGOs to help refugees cope with this drastic life-change. 

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