What you need to know about refugees, migrants, and others seeking safety in the United States

By Oxfam
Nightrose, 20, (in the pink shirt) lives in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement with her younger sister. The clothes she is wearing in the photo are the only ones she now owns. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

As depictions of migrant caravans flood the news, Oxfam has put together a guide to help you understand a crucial issue: US migration.

With restrictive caps on refugee admissions, travel bans, and fear-mongering against individuals who are perceived foreign, the United States is slowly casting aside its legacy as a beacon of hope for people who have nowhere else to turn. The upcoming months are crucial for protecting vulnerable people who have been forced from their homes because of conflict, persecution, or violence.

More than 68.5 million people are currently displaced—the highest number on record. Now is the time for solidarity and compassion, not for closing our minds, our hearts, or our borders.

Oxfam believes we need elected officials who will defend our freedoms and principles. Inciting hatred against refugees—and our Muslim neighbors in particular—is an affront to American values. Rhetoric that dehumanizes people and misrepresents our nation’s refugee resettlement and asylum procedures doesn’t make us any safer.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2018 Figures at a Glance. Illustration: Oxfam

Understanding the issues

It can be difficult to understand the differences among refugees, asylum seekers, and other classifications of migrants, so here we break down the legal categorizations, explain where the US stands on its migration policies, and put faces to the overwhelming statistics.

Who are refugees?

Under international law, a refugee is a person located outside the country of his or her nationality who has a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of his or her:

  • race
  • religion
  • nationality
  • membership in a particular social group
  • political opinion

In 2017, there were more than 25.4 million refugees in the world. Most live in host countries neighboring or near their nations of origin. Less than 1% will ever be resettled to third countries like the US, even though the UN estimates that 8% of the world’s refugees are in need of resettlement, with no prospects of returning to their home country or integrating into their host country.

Abed, a Syrian refugee, and one of his sons in their small apartment in Amman, Jordan. Abed works illegally to pay rent while he awaits resettlement to the US. The youngest of his five children suffered from a heart condition and died in Jordan, where he couldn't get the medical help he needed. Photo: Thomas Louapre

How does refugee resettlement work?

It can take more than two or three years before a refugee is even admitted to the US, often while living in difficult conditions in refugee camps or overcrowded apartments in cities and towns.

For many refugees, the first step is registering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR then collects a wealth of information, including biographical information and biometrics before determining who meets the strict legal requirements for refugee status.

This vetting process includes a range of security checks by US intelligence agencies, the FBI, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. Refugees are subject to a higher level of security checks than any other category of traveler to the US.

Suzanne Akhras Sahloul is the founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network which helps refugee families settle into new lives in Chicago. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Who are Temporary Protected Status holders?

In 1990, Congress created the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for people whose countries of origin prevent them from returning safely. Country designations stem from the following conditions:

  • ongoing armed conflict, including civil war
  • an environmental disaster or epidemic
  • other extraordinary and temporary conditions

Unlike refugee status, which is granted based on an assessment of an individual, TPS is available based on the situation in the country of origin. TPS holders can live and work in the US; however, they are not eligible for a green card/permanent residency, and if their country’s TPS designated status is terminated, they have to return.

Countries currently designated with TPS status: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Who are Dreamers? What is DACA?

In 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was introduced to prevent the deportation of people who had been brought to live in the US as children. DACA is a two-year renewable status that has been issued to approximately 800,000 people, often called “Dreamers.” In reality, the number of Dreamers—undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US under the age of 18—is much higher than the 800,000 who have formally been given DACA status. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 3.6 million undocumented immigrants entered the country while minors.

A variety of conditions must be met to request DACA:

  • Under age 31 in June 2012
  • Arrived in the US before 16th birthday
  • Continuous residence in the US since 2007
  • Have no felony or serious misdemeanor offenses
  • Currently in school, graduated with a high school or GED diploma, or honorably discharged from the military

In September 2017, the Trump administration decided to end DACA, a move Oxfam strongly condemned. In August 2018, a Texas federal judge ruled to temporarily allow DACA renewals to continue. For now, anyone who has or formerly had DACA can continue to renew their DACA status.

Who are asylees?

Asylees are similar to refugees: They are people in need of protection from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Globally, around one million people request asylum every year. Unlike resettled refugees, who sought refuge elsewhere and are later assigned to the US, those seeking asylum are already in the US or have arrived at a port of entry.

In January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Central American women, children, and families fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence may not be able to apply for asylum, slamming the door shut on those fleeing for their lives.

The human impact of banning refugees from the US

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of upholding President Trump’s September executive order to restrict travel from several majority Muslim countries—Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia—as well as North Korea and Venezuela, to the United States. Oxfam was on the scene, in front of the Supreme Court, to express our dismay at the normalization of religious discrimination.

Refugees enrich our nation

The search for safety can take decades. Here are just two examples of people who arrived in the US with      little more than the clothes on their backs, and are now working to help others.

Uyen Nguyen was resettled in California from Vietnam in 1985 at the age of 10. Photo: Chris Gregory/Oxfam

As a pre-teen, Uyen Nguyen survived a treacherous boat ride from Vietnam to the Philippines. After losing her parents, she and her brother lived in a camp for unaccompanied minors, before they could immigrate to the US. Now Nguyen owns a restaurant in Seattle specializing in international street food, serves as an Oxfam Sisters on the Planet ambassador, and volunteers with numerous charitable organizations.

Ali Aljundi came to the US from Syria on a scholarship to earn a master’s degree in international development. With no US embassy in Syria, he had to travel to Lebanon to get his papers—a trip his family was certain he would not survive. He cashed in all his savings so his family could escape fighting in Syria. Today, Aljundi works at Oxfam as a Syria projects and outreach officer.

The US is a nation of immigrants, and the outcome of this election could put our values to a test. Visit Oxfam's voter information page to learn more.

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