[A version of this post was originally published in 2015. We are republishing it following President Trump’s executive order restricting immigration and refugee resettlement from seven countries that are predominantly Muslim.]
The United States has accepted for resettlement just under 2,200 refugees from Syria since the conflict began in 2011. The vast majority arrived within the last year. They are now arriving at the rate of 45 a week. Though it’s picking up pace, the rate is still far short of what will be needed to meet President Obama’s goal of taking in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees within the next year, part of a total of 85,000 refugees from around the world. During the height of the Vietnam War, the United States took in many more refugees, around 200,000 a year.
It typically takes 18 to 24 months for a Syrian refugee to be considered and checked before being admitted. Here are some other important facts to know:
Only two percent of the refugees are single males of combat age.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refers agencies to most countries, including the United States, the agency’s the biggest donor. One factor for consideration is whether a refugee already has family in the country. The United States has asked the UNHCR to prioritize refugees who are considered vulnerable – women with children, the elderly, people who have been tortured or who may require modern medical treatment they cannot easily get elsewhere. Half the accepted refugees so far have been children. A quarter are adults over 60. They are roughly 50/50 men and women, though there are slightly more men. Because of the criteria, many refugee families have women as the head of household, or live with multiple generations under one roof.
The United States has one of the world's strictest systems for checking the backgrounds of refugees. Syrians are vetted even more carefully.
Once refugees are referred by the UNHCR, the U.S. government takes over, conducting extensive background checks under security measures enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Refugee specialists with the departments of State, Homeland Security and the National Terrorism Center collect their basic biographical information, and run their names, birthdates and fingerprints through databases, including the Defense Department. They also check background information the refugees provide to the UNHCR detailing where they came from and why they decided to flee. In a version of fraud detection, they double check the information with both classified and unclassified records, to see if it is consistent with what is known. So if a refugee claims his house was barrel bombed, for example, they see if Syrian forces used barrel bombs on that location in the same time frame.
Then the government agents do face-to-face interviews with applicants at regional centers in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. In some cases they travel to refugee camps to conduct lengthy interviews. The refugee specialists have all had 8 weeks of training on how to elicit testimony and test credibility. The final decision of whether a case is approved or rejected is made by the Department of Homeland Security.
Once refugees arrive, they can live wherever they want in the country. Faith-based and non-profit groups—not governors—help determine the best places in the country for them to relocate.
Most refugees go to orientation programs run by a coalition of six faith-based and three refugee non-profit groups. These groups receive federal funds to help welcome the arriving refugees, determine the best place in the country for them to relocate, find housing, learn some English and start looking for jobs.
The nine networks participating in the program meet once a week to coordinate their efforts. They have so far sent refugees to 180 locations around the country, from coast to coast. On arrival, people active in their community associations and religious institutions often meet them the airport, help find them homes, donate furniture for their first apartment, get refugee children enrolled in school and help able bodied adults find jobs.
The refugees are eligible for Medicaid and become permanent residents authorized to work in the country. After a year, they are eligible for a green card, and five years after that, they can become U.S. citizens.