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.