The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative is a consortium of non-profit organizations that provide free and low-cost legal and related services to immigrants in the Houston area, including refugees. Collaborative stakeholders include community organizations, charitable foundations, private attorneys, law schools, social workers, faith leaders, and business leaders who are committed to providing a wide array of services for immigrants. The Collaborative seeks to be a source of timely and accurate information for its stakeholders and the greater Houston community, through non-biased, fact-based information. Here is some such information about the current Syrian refugee situation that you may wish to consider:

Refugees are fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.
The United Nations estimates that nearly 60 million people are currently displaced as a result of wars, conflict and persecution around the world – an all-time high. Half of those displaced people are children. More than 11 million are Syrians, displaced by an ongoing civil war and violence. Of those, more than 4 million are officially registered refugees – mostly women and children –seeking safety and possibly permanent homes in the European Union, and the United States.

Less than 1% of displaced people worldwide are ever granted refugee status, and only a small portion of them in the United States. Congress sets limits on the numbers of refugees who may be admitted to the United States each year. In response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Obama Administration recently increased the number of refugees the United States will accept this year from 70,000 to 85,000. For Syrians in particular, the Obama Administration has proposed increasing the number of available refugee admissions to 10,000 (of the 85,000 total).

Obtaining refugee status and eventual resettlement is very challenging.
The way in which refugees are identified, processed, and eventually settled in the United States is known as USRAP, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. To enter the USRAP program, a refugee must submit a lengthy legal application while they are physically outside the United States. To become a refugee in the United States, the applying individual must prove that he or she is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin or nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution,” based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Due to the complexity of the law, refugees face a significant challenge when seeking to prove persecution and/or “well-founded fear.” The process can take several years to complete.

Seventy-five percent of refugee applicants in the United States are referred by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). UNHCR refers only about 1% of all potential refugees for resettlement, and only Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States have formal resettlement programs to accept refugee applications referred by UNHCR. The UNHCR prioritizes the most vulnerable refugees when referring cases to the United States and the 28 or so other countries who have agreed to accept Syrians. Priority populations include female-headed households, victims of torture and violence, religious minorities, LGBT refugees, and people needing urgent medical care.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any traveler to the U.S.
All refugees under consideration for resettlement in the United States are vetted by multiple security screenings and intensive background checks that take, on average, 18 to 24 months. These screenings are conducted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department, and the FBI.  One of the most important components of the process is an in-person interview with trained DHS officers. Once refugees receive conditional approval for resettlement, they are guided through a process of medical screenings, cultural orientation, sponsorship assurances, and referral to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for transportation to the United States. The White House recently released a helpful infographic explaining the screening process.

The U.S. vetting process for refugees is more rigorous than the process in other countries.
Very few of the numerous processing requirements within the USRAP can be waived, including the in-person DHS interview, security checks, and a medical exam, including a TB test. According to a State Department Official speaking on September 11, 2015, “This is one way – one of the many ways in which our Refugee Resettlement Program differs from a lot of other countries’ resettlement programs. A lot of other countries can do things like waive an in-person interview. They can take a case based on dossier. They do very few security checks in some cases. Those are not options that are available to us.” For more details about the U. S.s’ screening process, we recommend this USCIS factsheet.

Most refugees become naturalized American citizens.
To remain in the United States after initial admission, refugees must apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status—also known as getting a green card—within one year of being admitted to the United States. As lawful permanent residents, refugees have the right to own property, attend public schools, join certain branches of the U.S. armed forces, and travel internationally without an entry visa After becoming a lawful permanent resident, refugees may apply for citizenship after five years in the United States. On the whole, refugees are more likely to naturalize than any other immigrant group. Between 2009 and 2013, 59% of the LPRs who entered the United States as refugees became naturalized citizens (compared to 44% of all other immigrants). Many of the organizations affiliated with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative provide affordable legal assistance to refugees seeking this “adjustment of status.”

Refugees are an important part of the Houston community.
The Houston Chronicle recently dubbed Houston a “city of refugees,” a title well-deserved by the fact that nearly 40% of the refugees resettled in Texas land in Harris county. In fact, Houston welcomes more refugees than any other city in the United States, in large part because of the quality of the non-profit refugee resettlement agencies in Houston. That, combined with a relatively low cost of living, ample job opportunity and a diverse community – 1 in every 4 Houstonians is foreign-born and hundreds of languages are spoken here – makes Houston an ideal location for refugees trying to start over in the United States. In 2014, 4,818 immigrants were resettled in Harris County as refugees, parolees, special immigrant juveniles, asylees, and victims of human trafficking. Each of these categories represents a different mechanism for obtaining legal status in the United States and all are very difficult to obtain. In 2014 (the most current data available), 40% of refugee program arrivals were from Cuba, 27% from Iraq, 10% from Afghanistan, 7% from Burma (Myanmar), and the rest from a variety of war-torn countries.

Houston is home to five refugee resettlement agencies, which regularly work together to coordinate services and are all part of the Collaborative. The five agencies are Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, Refugee Services of Texas, YMCA International Services, and Alliance for Multicultural Community Services. All of these agencies welcome questions and volunteers.

About the Collaborative
Founded in 2013, the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative is a collective of non-profit organizations that provide free and low-cost legal services to immigrants in the Houston region. The Collaborative’s mission is to create a coordinated network of effective and efficient services to assist low-income immigrants access the information and legal representation that allows them to make choices in their own best interest. Follow us @HTXimmigration.


HILSC organization, IDEA Relief, is leading efforts to bring the first annual Human Rights Day Festival to Houston on December 5th from 1-5pm at Discovery Green Park.

Event Background

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10th 1948, representing an international commitment to guarantee basic rights for individuals and prevent future atrocities such as those seen in World War II. In 1950, the UN General Assembly designated December 10th as an annual celebration of Human Rights Day to raise awareness about human rights and promote the Declaration as a common standard for all people and nations.

As a cosmopolitan city and a leader in a number of industries, Houston affords a wide range of rights to its citizens that benefit the community as a whole. In 2015, Houston will join major cities around the globe in Human Rights Day festivities, bringing together community partners to support and celebrate the rights that unite people in Houston and around the world.

About the Event

The first Houston Human Rights Day will take place on December 5th, 2015, co-hosted by The City of Houston, Rice University, IEDA Relief, and Youth for Human Rights. It is envisioned as an educational and fun community experience for all ages that gives participants the opportunity to familiarize themselves with human rights and relevant local, national and international initiatives. The event will feature contributions from local government bodies, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, businesses and other community leaders to engage a wide audience in raising awareness about human rights.

Event Themes

  • Recognize and celebrate the rights that people and organizations in Houston enjoy, and the history behind these rights.
  • Raise awareness of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, human rights in the US and around the world, and relevant work carried out by local organizations and individuals.
  • Engage participants in activities relevant to human rights issues in Houston and beyond.
  • Show the world that Houston is a leader in celebrating human rights and educating the community on human rights topics.

More information about this event coming soon.


United We Dream released “A Portrait of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Recipients: Challenges and Opportunities Three Years Later”, a survey first featured on Vox, of more than 1,750 immigrant youth with DACA.

In 2012, after a campaign led by immigrant youth, President Obama announced DACA, a program that currently protects more than 700,000 people from deportation and provides them 2-year, renewable work permits.

This survey is one of the largest of its kind, and it takes an in-depth look at life with DACA. The results show that DACA recipients have made great strides and are often the bedrock of economic and social support for their families. They do this while still struggling to find economic opportunities and the tools and information they need to navigate health care, workforce, financial, and educational institutions.

Among the key findings:

  • Over two-thirds of respondents help their family financially by paying rent and other bills.
  • Over 80 percent of survey respondents indicated that since DACA, they feel like they are more likely to achieve their career goals.
  • Nearly half of the respondents’ families rely on the DACA recipient for key information about immigration, healthcare, education, etc.
  • Nearly 70 percent of respondents did not have enough income to meet their monthly expenses or could just barely meet them.
  • Over 85 percent of respondents feel that they have been held back from their career goals because of their immigration status.

This is United We Dream’s second nationwide survey of immigrant youth and with its release, UWD is launching an ongoing research initiative on the lives and needs of immigrant youth and families.

United We Dream is the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation, a powerful nonpartisan network made up of 55 local groups in 26 states. UWD organizes and advocates for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families, regardless of immigration status. UWD seeks to address the inequities and obstacles faced by immigrant youth and believes that by empowering immigrant youth, it can advance the cause of the entire community—justice for all immigrants.

Learn more about UWD at

One of the first acts of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative was to commission a baseline report on Houston’s immigrant population from the Migration Policy Institute. MPI is a non-partisan and trusted source of accurate data on immigration trends in the U.S. and internationally.

The report, “A Profile of Immigrants in Houston, the Nation’s Most Diverse Metropolitan Area,” provides an overview of the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Houston’s immigrants, along with their naturalization rates, legal status, and potential eligibility for immigration benefits such as citizenship or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The report finds that Houston’s strong labor market and growing economy provide a solid foundation for the integration of immigrants and their children. At the same time, Houston has a relatively low-wage economy, and the low incomes of Houston’s immigrants—particularly Latinos—may present barriers to their integration and access to legal assistance, health care, and other needed services.

Using data from the American Community Survey (ACS), the authors tabulate numbers of immigrants potentially in need of community-based immigration assistance. The report finds that an estimated 350,000 legal permanent residents, most of them from Mexico and Central America, are eligible for naturalization but have not yet applied. In addition, nearly half of the metro area’s 400,000 unauthorized immigrants are potentially eligible for either DACA or the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program.

Report Highlights 

The greater Houston area is home to the majority of Texas’ immigrant population. In 2013, immigrants comprised over one quarter (25.3%) of Harris County residents, and 22 percent of residents in the Houston/The Woodlands/Sugar Land Metropolitan Statistical Area.[1] Houston is one of six metropolitan areas nationally that experienced the most significant new immigrant growth between 2000 and 2010, and is one of the most diverse regions of the state.[2] Over 75 percent of the foreign-born in the 11-county Houston-Galveston region live in Harris County.[3] An estimated 67 percent of Harris County’s foreign-born and 64 percent of the foreign-born in the MSA are non-US citizens.[4]

The future impact of immigrants on the Houston metro area cannot be overstated. The immigrant population grew by almost 50 percent from 2000 to 2012, with populations from Guatemala and Honduras more than doubling during that period (see chart, below). It is important to note that the total foreign-born population grew by only 28% nationally during this same period.

Figure 1: Growth Rate, Foreign-Born Population by Top 10 Origins, Houston Metro Area, 2000-2012


Citizenship Status 

Approximately one-third of the foreign-born in the Houston metro region are naturalized US citizens, compared to 44 percent in the United States as a whole. Citizenship rates are much lower for immigrants from El Salvador (24%), Mexico (22%), Guatemala (17%), and Honduras (14%). U.S. citizenship provides substantive economic, social, and civic benefits to immigrants and their families. For example, the average income of adult citizen immigrants is 33 percent higher—and the poverty rate is nearly six percentage points lower—than that of non-citizens.[5]

The Migration Policy Institutes that only 56 percent of the legal permanent residents (LPRs) who are eligible to apply for citizenship are naturalized citizens, compared to 61 percent of LPRs nationwide. These are typically legal permanent residents married to U.S. citizens or who have sufficient U.S. residency. There are many more immigrants in the Houston area eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, but cost, educational gaps, lack of legal services, and confusion about programs for which they might qualify, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), may prevent them from seizing these opportunities.

Figure 2: Percent by Origin Country and Citizenship Status, 2008-2012


Overall, it is important to note that the populations of immigrants most in need of affordable legal services are those who are currently unauthorized (gray columns in Figure 2, above) and the non-immigrants (purple columns in Figure 2, above). In the Houston community, these immigrants are disproportionately from Mexico and Central America, though significant numbers of immigrants from the other top 10 origin countries also fall into these categories.

Download the full report here.


[1] U.S. Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2013 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates.

[2] Michael Emerson, Jenifer Bratter, and Junia Howell, Houston Region Grows More Racially/Ethnically Diverse, With Small Declines in Segregation. (Houston, Texas, Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, 2012).

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder

[4] U.S. Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2013 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates.

[5] Shierholz, Heidi. “The Effects of Citizenship on Family Income and Poverty.” Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #256. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2010. Web.

On February 18, 2015, Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced the launch of a new informational website for immigrants who are interested in applying for citizenship or deferred action.  The new website is the product of a partnership between the City’s Department of Neighborhoods Office of International Communities (OIC) and the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC).  The partnership was established last December in response to President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

“We formed this partnership with one simple goal in mind—to make sure that Houston is prepared for the implementation of the President’s executive order,” said Mayor Parker.  “I am certain the recent court order delaying implementation of the President’s order will be temporary.  When it is lifted, Houstonians affected who will be able to take advantage of the President’s order need access to accurate information and a way to connect with reputable organizations that can help them.  With the launch of this new website, I’m pleased to report that Houston is ready.”

The website provides access to accurate, up-to-date information about applying for citizenship and new “deferred action” programs that offer the right to stay in the U.S. and work permits to eligible undocumented immigrants.  The site will help people find trusted community organizations for legal guidance and assistance.

“The new immigration policies will have a huge impact on our community,” said Wafa Abdin, Vice President of Immigration and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance, a member of HILSC. “We are the largest provider of low-cost legal services for immigrants in Houston. We are working with our colleagues in the Houston region to address the increased demand from immigrants seeking accurate information and legal assistance as pertains to the expanded DACA and the new DAPA program.”

President’s Immigration Executive Order

On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced executive actions to help undocumented Americans gain the right to temporarily stay and work in the U.S.  With over 1.3 million immigrants, the Greater Houston metropolitan area has one of the highest concentrations and fastest growing immigrant and refugee populations in the country.  More than 200,000 undocumented immigrants in the Houston region will be eligible for legal status through the new programs.

The policy changes include an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the creation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. Under deferred action, the government will not place people who meet certain requirements into deportation proceedings.  It does not mean that a person will get a visa or a green card and it is not a path to citizenship. However, a person with deferred action is temporarily protected from deportation and is eligible for a work permit for three years with the option to renew.

Legal Challenges to New Programs

The applications for the expanded DACA program were expected to be available starting on February 18.  On Monday, however, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court in Brownsville, Texas issued a temporary injunction against the new policies. The injunction does not pronounce the policies illegal, but it prevents the administration from implementing them until the court rules on their constitutionality.  It is expected that the case will proceed to the 5th Circuit Court and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is a temporary setback,” explained Anne Chandler, Executive Director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a member of HILSC. “While the applications for DACA are not available today as we had hoped they would be, this is the time for the community ofHouston to prepare for DACA and DAPA by collecting the required documents, attending information sessions and getting in touch with our trusted partner organizations.”

The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a member of HILSC, is one of the many organizations helping immigrants get ready to apply for the new programs once they become available.  TOP member Ehirazema Jazmin Meza is from Mexico, has been in the U.S. for twelve years and has two U.S.-born children.  She will benefit from the new DAPA program once it is available.

“My family, neighbors and friends have been waiting for too long for a chance to come out of the shadows, and we have faith that the courts will ultimately uphold the President’s executive action,” Meza said.  “I have children who were born here.  We contribute to the workforce with our labor.  Our lives are deeply rooted here.  We are Texans.  We are Americans.”

About the New Website

The newly-launched website offers a one-stop-shop for immigrants seeking information about applying for citizenship or deferred action.  It will keep those affected informed on the latest developments and sources they can turn to for guidance.

The website includes a list of local organizations from which immigrants can seek legal assistance and other types of services.  Hundreds of in-person information sessions about deferred action programs are scheduled throughout 2015.  A calendar of these events is available on the website and new events are being added daily.

The website is currently available in English and Spanish and will soon be available in all six of the City’s official languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Urdu and Arabic.

Misinformation and Fraud

There is a lot of misinformation about deferred action programs.   Unscrupulous individuals, often called “notarios,” take advantage of immigrants, scamming them out of money and often putting their ability to obtain legal status in jeopardy forever.  Immigration fraud is a huge problem in our community and the website will help individuals avoid fraud by pointing them towards high-quality, trustworthy help from partner organizations.

To avoid fraud:

  1. Be aware of notarios. Notarios CANNOT practice immigration law. Only licensed attorneys and Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited (BIA) Representatives can.  Always ask to see credentials.
  2. Never pay to print or get DACA renewal applications.  You can get them for free at the website.
  3. If it sounds ​​too good to be true,​ it probably is.  When in doubt, check with a trusted organization and with the USCIS website for answers.  ​
  4. Report fraud if it happens to you.

Local Immigration Services Agencies

​Trusted partner organizations of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative who provide resources for immigrants seeking deferred action:

  • Boat People SOS
  • Bonding Against Adversity, Inc.
  • Catholic Charities St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance
  • Chinese Community Center
  • City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods – Office of International Communities
  • Ethiopian Community Organization in Houston
  • Fe y Justicia Worker Center
  • Fort Bend Lawyers Care
  • Houston Volunteer Lawyers
  • Human Rights First
  • Kids in Need of Defense
  • Memorial Assistance Ministries (MAM)
  • Mi Familia Vota
  • Neighborhood Centers Inc.
  • NALEO Educational Fund
  • OCA-Greater Houston
  • South Texas College of Law Legal Clinics
  • Ser and Hacer (The Children’s Center)
  • Tahirih Justice Center
  • Texas Organizing Project
  • University of Houston Law Center
  • United We Dream – Houston
  • YMCA International Services

More information about the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative and a full list of members can be found at

Facts about immigration in the Houston region can be found at

To learn about the programs and initiatives of the Department of Neighborhoods Office of International Communities,