Immigration Basics: Refugees

ISSUE BRIEF | UPDATED JULY 2016

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Who are refugees?

Refugees are people who are authorized to come to the United States because they are determined to be fleeing individual persecution by their home government.

Although the United Nations has identified nearly 12 million individuals as current refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is seeking to permanently resettle only a fraction of those. In 2013, that number was about 100,000. Roughly 84,400 refugees are currently being resettled in the U.S. annually, many of whom do not meet the U.N. resettlement criteria.

To qualify as a refugee, a person must meet the following definition from Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act:

"any person who... is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion...."


What is the difference between a refugee and an asylee?

The distinction between a refugee and an asylee is that refugees apply for entry to the U.S. from abroad, and asylees are already in the U.S., legally or illegally, when the application is made. The distinction originally required that refugees apply for protection from outside their home country. The U.S. now accepts applications from people while still in their homeland in some cases.


What is the most effective way for the United States to help people who are legitimately fleeing persecution?

The number of people UNHCR considers refugees grows daily, and there is no way the United States would be able to accommodate all of them. There are many things to consider when determining how we should prioritize resettlement, including finding out who is in the most imminent danger, who has the least likelihood of being able to return home in the foreseeable future, and who can be effectively screened to ensure they do not pose a danger to the United States.

Oftentimes refugees are displaced by wars, natural disasters, or other temporary conditions. Providing a temporary protection until the problem can be solved, as opposed to permanent resettling, should be our focus.

Efforts on behalf of refugees should be re-targeted away from resettlement and toward tackling problems at their source. The U.S. Committee for Refugees has estimated that a day's worth of funding needed to settle a single refugee in the United States would cover the needs of at least 12 refugees abroad. Assisting people who are temporarily displaced in, or near their homelands, allows us to protect far more people than we can through resettlement.


What are the risks associated with resettling refugees?

By allowing a mass migration of refugees, particularly those from places where religious or political violence is endemic, we open ourselves up to possible threats. Oftentimes we cannot perform proper screening or background checks on these refugees so we aren't able to distinguish legitimate refugees from terrorists.

For instance, the Tsarnaev brothers were admitted as refugees and were later responsible for the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. There have been many other instances of radical refugees planning terrorist attacks that have not been widely reported because the attacks were thwarted before being carried out.

Not all people who are fleeing dangerous situations are innocent victims. Many undoubtedly are. But many – especially in places like Syria – are simply on the losing end of bloody ethnic and religious conflicts. They may be fleeing for their lives, but had the outcome of these conflicts been different, they might be committing atrocities and it might be the other guys doing the fleeing. The challenge for our refugee policy is, amid the complete chaos in the sending countries, to be able to sort out the innocents from the losers.


Do we have a moral obligation to admit refugees?

The U.S. has a very generous refugee program. Unfortunately, due to an antiquated and politicized policy it is too often taken advantage of. A 2009 internal report by the Department of Homeland Security found that 70% of asylum cases contained proven or probable fraud.


Can we refuse refugees?

Although many state governors have said their states will refuse to accept Syrian refugees, it would take action by Congress to block their arrival. Under Section 412 of the Immigration and Nationality Ace (INA), states do not have the authority to refuse foreign nationals who have been granted asylum or refugee status by the federal government. Governors are urging Congress to use its legislative authority to prevent federal tax dollars from being used to fund the initiative.


Are America's refugee policies effective for dealing with current refugee situations?

Our refugee policies were codified 35 years ago under The Refugee Act of 1980. They were designed to address the political realities of the Cold War era, in which persecution was most often perpetrated by powerful and repressive central governments. These governments actively prevented their citizens from leaving.

Contemporary refugee situations, more often than not, are the consequence of the breakdown of government control in a growing number of countries around the world. In their place, violent militias driven by religious fanaticism, ethnic separatism, criminal enterprise, and other factors are wreaking havoc on people in a rapidly increasing number of failed states. These religious, nationalist and criminal insurgents, and the weak governments they are challenging for power, actively encourage mass outflows of migrants.

U.S. refugee laws need to be updated to allow the United States to respond to humanitarian crises, while protecting vital national interests.


Final Thoughts Regarding Plans to Increase Refugee Admissions

In light of recent terrorists attacks and the frank acknowledgements from intelligence officials here and in Europe, the Obama administration must abandon its plans for massive increases in refugees. If they don’t, Congress must stop them. Here’s why:

  • ISIS and other terrorists groups have vowed to use the freedom and openness of our society to attack us. We would be fools not to believe them.
  • Even if the vast majority of migrants being resettled are not security threats, the Paris attacks (like others including 9/11) proves it takes only a few people to inflict catastrophic damage.
  • Screening the existing level of refugees is inadequate. Before our nation incurs the extra burden of admitting additional refugees from high risk countries we need to improve current screening and close loopholes that terrorist can exploit.
  • Before the numbers of refugees are increased, our government should provide an analysis on the cost and impact that increase would have on American taxpayers.
  • We must undertake an honest assessment of our assimilation process. Regardless of whose fault it is, the failure to assimilate immigrants and their children into the economic and cultural mainstream can have lethal consequences.