How Syrian refugees get to come to America

The debate about Syrian refugees being allowed to come to America has grown heated in the past few days. For those who do not want the refugees here, questions about the vetting process are front and center.

The process is a long one and can take up to two years.

Here’s a primer on just how refugees come into this country.

Step 1 

Refugees who want to come to the United States must first apply for refugee status with the UNHCR – the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The application is reviewed, and UNHCR decides who is to be declared a "refugee" – or, by its definition, one who is "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

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Step 2

Assuming an applicant falls into one of those categories, he or she is referred for resettlement in another country. Once in that country, he or she is granted legal resident status which will lead to the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

Step 3

Let’s say the refugee is referred to the United States. When that happens, the refugee’s application is processed by a Resettlement Support Center. There, the refugee is interviewed then goes on to an intensive screening process that includes another interview, a medical evaluation and an interagency security screening process. That process is meant to ensure the refugee does not pose a threat to the United States. The agencies involved in that part of the vetting process include, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The agencies check backgrounds, fingerprints and look for names on any terror list. Syrian refugees go through another layer of screening called the Syria Enhanced Review process.

Step 4

Refugees whose applications for U.S. resettlement receive approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service are matched with an American resettlement organization. Most are nonprofit organizations that rely on professional and volunteer staff to assist refugees in the resettlement process. There has been a lot attention paid to this part of the process since it was revealed that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks entered Europe through such a processing center.

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Step 5

Detailed information on all refugees approved for resettlement in the United States is sent to the Refugee Data Center (RDC) in New York where the refugee is matched with one 11 voluntary agencies that provide reception and placement services for refugees coming to the United States.

Step 6

Refugees are told they must complete addition steps even after they are matched with an agency to help them settle in the United States. These activities are undertaken concurrently and can take from 2 months to 2 years to complete, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

According to the USCRI, the activities are:

  • Assurance process: The American resettlement organization must "assure" the Department of State that it is prepared to receive each matched refugee. This "assurance" is a written guarantee that various basic services will be provided to the refugee and any accompanying family members in the initial resettlement phase. At this time, the resettlement organization determines where in the United States the refugee will be resettled based on the availability of housing, employment, needed services, readiness of host community, and a variety of other factors. However, if a refugee has a relative in the United States, every effort is made to resettle the refugee near that relative. Refugees do not have to have U.S. sponsors to be resettled in the United States.
  • Medical clearance: Prior to coming to the United States, all refugees are medically screened by a health care professional working for the U.S. government. The screening identifies medical conditions that require follow-up or constitute a public health concern. A few serious conditions may render a refugee ineligible for entry into the United States; however, a waiver may be available. After being "medically cleared," a refugee must enter the United States within one year.
  • Security clearance: All refugees must undergo a security clearance procedure prior to coming to the United States. The level of clearance needed depends on the refugee's country of origin. In most cases, the refugee's name is checked against the FBI's database of known terrorists and undesirables, as well as the State Department's database of people who have been denied visas to enter the United States in the past.
  • Cultural orientation: All refugees receive some form of cultural orientation prior to coming to the United States. Most programs emphasize the importance of self-sufficiency in American society, as well as what to expect in the initial resettlement phase. Classes range in length from three hours to several days.

How many Syrian refugees are here already and who are they?

Just under 2,200 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since 2011. According to a CNN story, most are children. "Single men of combat age" represent only 2 percent of those admitted, and the elderly comprise another 2.5 percent. Those already admitted to the country are living in 36 states.

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What happens when they get here?

Refugees are given money when they arrive to help them get set up in this country. Below is what the Associated Press reported about the funds they get.

Financial help

Upon arrival in the United States, each refugee is eligible for a $1,975 arrival and placement grant that is managed by one of nine refugee resettlement agencies working with the federal government. At least $1,125 of that grant must be spent on housing, including a bed for each person, basic furniture such as a couch, kitchen items including dishes and silverware, and weather-appropriate clothing. The remainder is used to cover additional costs for the aid agency.

Low-income refugee families with children may be eligible for temporary assistance for needy families, a welfare program in which state rules govern eligibility and the amount of money families receive, for up to five years. Immigrants without children or otherwise not eligible for the temporary assistance program qualify for the refugee cash assistance program run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Eligibility for that program lasts eight months.

Elderly, blind or disabled refugees may be eligible for cash assistance through the Supplemental Security Income program for up to nine years.

Health Care

Low-income refugees may be eligible for Medicaid for up to seven years. While immigrants to the U.S. are not generally eligible for Medicaid, refugees invited to move to the U.S. are exempt. Each state determines which refugees meet the eligibility requirements. Those who don't qualify for Medicaid can receive refugee medical assistance for up to eight months.


Refugees must register with the Social Security Administration after arrival and are almost immediately eligible for a work permit. Social services, including job placement programs, are available to refugees for up to five years.

Other Assistance

Low-income refugees may also be eligible for food-assistance programs.