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Refugees, Part 2: How the U.S. Immigration System Handles Refugees from Syria and Other Countries

By Furfur [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsRefugees fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria have been arriving in the U.S. in small numbers for some time, but the issue has only recently gained widespread attention. Much of this attention focuses on alleged threats to U.S. national security, with elected leaders, presidential candidates, and others calling for additional screening of refugees before they may enter U.S. territory. Federal immigration law already requires prospective refugees to undergo extensive background screening, which only begins after they receive formal “refugee” status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The screening process, which is conducted by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and other agencies, can take two years or more to complete.

Background of the Refugee Crisis

The crisis in Syria began in early 2011, with a series of protests against the Syrian government. This eventually led to a civil war between the government and rebel forces seeking to remove the country’s president. The group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) also got involved in the conflict. It now controls large areas of eastern Syria, while the rest of the country is divided between the government and other forces. Estimates of the total death toll exceed 250,000 people. As of December 2015, the UNHCR states that more than 4.3 million have been driven from their homes.

The total number of Syrian refugees that may be admitted to the U.S. during the current fiscal year is set at 10,000, approximately 0.2 percent of the total number of refugees from this conflict. About 2,200 have reportedly already been admitted. By comparison, the UNHCR reports that Turkey currently has over 2.2 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon more than 1 million, and Jordan more than 600,000. European nations have reportedly received more than 800,000 asylum applications from Syrian refugees.

Step 1: The United Nations

In order to qualify for admission to the U.S. as a refugee, an individual must first apply for refugee status with the UNHCR. This agency makes an initial assessment of whether the person meets the criteria for designation as a refugee, which was established by the 1951 Refugee Convention and codified in the U.S. at 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42).

Applicants must provide personal information and biometric data for a background check. They must then submit to an interview, in which the same information is checked again. The UNHCR reportedly only approves about one percent of applicants.

Step 2: Resettlement Support Center

Upon receiving approval from the UNHCR, the applicant must submit an application to a federally funded nonprofit organization known as a Resettlement Support Center (RSC). The RSC, if it accepts the person, will collect their information and documentation in preparation for the application to U.S. authorities.

Step 3: U.S. Security Screening

Once the applicant submits an application for resettlement in the U.S., multiple agencies conduct an extensive background check, including DOS, USCIS, and others. Refugee applicants are subject to the most intense scrutiny of any type of prospective immigrant to the U.S., and Syrian refugees are subject to even more scrutiny. The DOS established a process known as Syria Enhanced Review for people fleeing the Syrian conflict. Only once this process is complete may a Syrian refugee actually set foot in the U.S.

If you need to speak to an immigration attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact Samuel C. Berger today online, at (201) 587-1500, or at (212) 380-8117.

More Blog Posts:

Refugees, Part 1: How the U.S. Immigration System Defines “Refugee” Status, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, November 19, 2015

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

Photo credit: By Furfur [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.