Refugees Are Not Undocumented Immigrants And Other Common Misconceptions

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
Lukasz Z / Shutterstock

I’ve been thinking a lot about refugees lately. Not just because the Syrian refugee crisis is in the headlines and the stories will break your heart. Not just because the topic of immigration was a hot-button issue in the 2016 election and continues to be an important issue as we wade through the election’s aftermath. Not just because I’m trying to be a more informed citizen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about refugees lately because our family recently decided to “sponsor” the resettlement of a refugee family. This does not mean we are sponsoring the family’s entry into the country, like other immigration avenues; rather, it means we are working with a refugee aid organization to sponsor and assist with the family’s resettlement in the United States. Until recently I didn’t know any of this, and it’s just one of the many misconceptions I am learning about as we move through the process.

It turns out, I’m hardly alone in my misunderstandings and lack of information about the U.S. refugee program. In conversations with friends and families about our role in this family’s resettlement, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the process. Immigration, asylum, and refugee status are all complicated legal tools, with complex and nuanced provisions, and they are often lumped together in the same bucket.

Many people are very confused about this process, but it’s important to understand what we mean when we say “refugee,” not just so that we can be better-informed citizens, but so that we might take a more proactive approach to helping.

Myth: Refugees aren’t subject to a vetting process.

Fact: Refugees undergo an extensive vetting process BEFORE entry into the United States.

While it is true that refugees have fled their country due to fear of persecution, war, or other life-threatening crisis situations, refugees in the United States undergo an extensive vetting process before they are even allowed entry into the country. According to the U.S. State Department, refugees from all nationalities considered for admission to the country are subject to the highest level of security checks, including multiple applications, interviews, biometric tests, medical screenings, and cultural training sessions with various federal agencies. What’s more, refugees from Syria undergo an enhanced level of review before arriving in the United States.

The total processing time varies depending on the refugee’s country of origin and other circumstances, but in general the vetting process takes about 18 to 24 months before the refugee arrives in the United States.

Myth: Refugees from certain areas of the world are a risk to our safety.

Fact: Refugees are far more likely to be the victims of terrorism than a safety risk to the country.

Some people are concerned that refugees from certain areas of the world, particularly refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East, could pose a threat of terrorism. While there are incidents of terrorist attacks committed by refugees in other parts of the world, these instances are the exception rather than the rule.

The misconception that refugees are a potential danger is simply not supported by the facts. According to the U.S. State Department, most Syrian refugees considered for admission to the United States are women and children, and those men who are considered for refugee admission are usually with families. What’s more, the agency says refugees are far more likely to be the victims of terrorism than pose a threat of terrorism. In fact, since January 1, 2010, nearly 3,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States, only after undergoing the most extensive level of security screening of anyone coming into the country, and none have been arrested or removed on terrorism charges.

As mentioned above, refugees undergo the most rigorous vetting process of all foreigners coming into the country before they are even allowed to set foot on U.S. soil. The simple truth is that foreign visitors who come into the United States for a vacation or business trip only require a visitor visa and undergo a significantly less rigorous vetting process.

Myth: Private citizens can sponsor a refugee.

Fact: The federal government is responsible for sponsoring refugees.

Each year, the president, in consultation with Congress, determines the number of refugees allowed entry into the United States and the funds allocated to refugee resettlement. In 2016, the United States approved the admission of 85,000 refugees from around the world.

The government then works with nine Resettlement Agencies in the U.S., which oversee a network of about 300 affiliates throughout the country, to assist with the individual or family’s settlement in the United States through the Reception and Placement Program.

Myth: The process ends when a refugee arrives in the United States.

Fact: The legal process and adjustment period continues long after arrival in the country.

All refugees are required to apply for a green card within a year of arrival in the United States and are expected to find employment within the first few months. Not surprisingly, the adjustment process can take some time, and the transition to living in a new country can be a difficult one. For this reason, the work of resettlement agencies around the country — and private citizens who work with them — are so important.

For instance, working with Refugee One in Chicago, my husband and I (along with significant help from friends in the area) will help a soon-to-arrive refugee family resettle in the area. This includes providing financial support, furnishing the family’s apartment with everything from food and toiletries to fixtures and furniture, stocking their pantry before arrival, welcoming them at the airport, and socializing with them on a regular basis for six months to help with the transition process.

Regular tasks like grocery shopping and searching for employment can be difficult tasks for refugee families, many of whom have different customs and speak a different language. The role of the resettlement sponsor is to help guide the refugee through these things, so that they can gain their footing and feel safe and welcome in their new surroundings.

Although refugees receive federal money to learn English and pay for essentials, such as food and clothing, government funding is insufficient to cover all their needs, which makes the donations of private citizens and the work of aid organizations so important. The importance of the resettlement process can’t be understated, and there are several ways for people to get involved, whether it’s through donations, mentoring, or job training. We’re all in this together, after all.

You can find information about resettlement agencies in your area here.

This article was originally published on