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Refugees, Part 1: How the U.S. Immigration System Defines “Refugee” Status

U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe war in Syria, and the refugee crisis it has created in Europe and elsewhere, has occupied a significant portion of the nation’s attention in recent weeks. With millions of people fleeing violence in the region, other countries are evaluating their ability to take people in and considering issues of security. Recent events, such as the terror attacks in Paris, France in early November, have led some people, including members of Congress, to question whether the U.S. should accept any refugees from Syria. Whether the two matters are related or not, the federal government has a strict definition of who may qualify for refugee status and an extensive system for screening prospective refugees. It is worth examining how this system works.

Refugee Status in the U.S.

Under federal immigration law, the President has the authority to determine the total number of refugees the government may admit during a fiscal year, after “appropriate consultation” with Congress. 8 U.S.C. § 1157(a)(2). For fiscal year 2016, which began on October 1, 2015, the President has authorized the admission of up to 85,000 refugees, with further allocations for different regions of the world. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must maintain a “current numerical accounting” of the number of refugee spots still available. 8 C.F.R. § 207.6.

The “Near East/South Asia” region, which includes Syria, may account for up to 34,000 spots in fiscal year 2016, and the President has specifically set aside 10,000 spots for Syrians. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill purporting to place additional restrictions on Syrian refugees, but no companion bill has passed in the Senate.

Qualifying as a Refugee

A “refugee” is defined as someone who is outside their home country, and who cannot return to, or seek protection from, that country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” because of factors like race, religion, or political affiliation. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42). Unlike with asylum, a person must be outside the U.S. in order to apply to come here as a refugee. A person cannot qualify for refugee status if they are found to be “firmly resettled” in a third country. 8 C.F.R. § 207.1(b).

Certain admissibility requirements do not apply to people seeking refugee status, including the general requirement for a valid visa, the ban on people who are deemed likely to become a “public charge,” and the ban on people who are seeking work without a labor certification. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1157(c)(3); 1182(a)(4), (5), (7)(A).

Adjustment of Status for Refugees

One year after their entry into the U.S., refugees are required to apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for additional screening, including the three inadmissibility provisions that did not apply during the refugee application process. 8 C.F.R. § 209.1(a). If USCIS approves the person, they may be permitted to adjust their status to permanent residence.

Coming Up…

In the next installment, we will discuss the screening procedures used in refugee cases and the heightened standard for Syrian nationals.

Immigration law attorney Samuel C. Berger represents immigrants who have made their homes in New Jersey, or who would like to come to this area, as well as families and employers who want to petition on an immigrant’s behalf. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you, contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.

More Blog Posts:

Federal Appellate Court Stops Transgender Immigrant’s Deportation Because of Conditions in Home Country, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, October 8, 2015

Federal Judge Harshly Rebukes Government’s Treatment of Immigrant Children Held in Detention, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, September 10, 2015

How Immigration Laws Regarding Refugees and Asylum Relate to the Situation at the U.S.-Mexico Border, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, July 9, 2014

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.