US flag spraypainted on wallWho are the US refugee program stakeholders?

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the US State Department work together overseas to finalise selection and travel authorisation of refugees resettling in the US. The State Department also coordinates allocations to specific cities and resettlement agencies.

Once in the US, there are nine national voluntary agencies (VOLAGs) that oversee a network of some 250 affiliates in 49 states plus Washington, DC through the State Department’s Reception & Placement Program (RPP).

This Program provides assistance for refugees to settle in the US. It funds the VOLAGs for each refugee to assist with meeting expenses during a refugee’s first few months in the US such as rent, furnishings, food, and clothing.

While some of the VOLAGs have religious affiliations, they are not allowed to proselytise. The agreement between the State Department and the VOLAGs outlines the services that the agency must provide to each refugee.

Where are refugees resettled?

The VOLAGs meet amongst themselves to review the biodata and case records sent by overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) to determine where a refugee should be resettled in the US. VOLAGs work to match the needs of each refugee with the specific resources available in one of about 190 communities across the US where refugees are resettled.

If a refugee has relatives in the US, they should be resettled near or with them. Otherwise, the VOLAG that agrees to sponsor the refugee decides on the best match between a community’s resources and the refugee’s needs.

Travel to the US

Once the resettlement city and VOLAG have been selected for a refugee, the overseas Refugee Support Center (RSC) then works with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to transport the refugee to the US. The cost of refugee transportation (airline tickets) is provided as an interest free loan organised by IOM. Refugees typically begin repaying 6 months after arrival and finish 42 months after arrival. These payments are used to reimburse the US Government for the funds it provided to IOM for refugee transportation.

The VOLAGs typically oversee the repayment process for the refugee and their loan counselors’ help refugees gain basic financial literacy if needed and establish good credit in the US.

Arrival in the United States

When refugees arrive at their destination city, local VOLAG affiliates or family members meet them at the airport and take them to their apartment. This has basic furnishings, appliances, clothing, and food.

Only the first 30-90 days are supported by the State Department. After that, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) provides short-term cash and medical assistance to new refugees, as well as case management services, English as a Foreign Language classes, job readiness and employment services.

ORR supports additional programs to serve all eligible refugees beyond the first eight months post-arrival. These include micro-enterprise development, ethnic community self help, agricultural partnerships, and services for survivors of torture. Typically, these are available for up to 5 years post-resettlement.

VOLAGs and local community affiliates also help with applying for a Social Security card, registering children in school, learning how to access shopping facilities, and arranging medical appointments.

Employment in the US

Refugees receive employment authorisation upon arrival and thus can begin working as soon as they find employment. Although the VOLAG provides employment support services, many refugees start in entry-level jobs, even if they have high-level skills or education. Upwardly Global is a non profit in the US which works to eliminate employment barriers for skilled refugees and integrate them into the professional US workforce.

Refugees will need to obtain social security numbers to provide to employers for tax reporting purposes. The VOLAG or local affiliate will assist with this.

Immigration status

After one year, refugees are required to apply for permanent residence (commonly referred to as a green card) and after 5 years in the US, a refugee is eligible to apply for US citizenship.

The application to apply for permanent residence is called Adjustment of Status. Refugees are required to have one year of physical presence (not just one year since being admitted as a refugee) in the US at time of filing the application in order to adjust status.

Refugees do not have to continue to meet the definition of “refugee” after admission and may still adjust status. Derivative refugees (those accompanying or following to join a principal refugee) do not have to wait until the principal refugee has adjusted status to adjust their own status. They are considered refugees in their own right once admitted to the US. Derivative refugees also do not have to maintain their familial relationship to the principal refugee after admission to the US to be eligible to adjust status.

If the adjustment application is properly filed, the applicant meets all eligibility requirements, and the applicant satisfies admissibility and waiver requirements, then the US immigration officer must approve the application. Unlike most applications for adjustment of status, refugee adjustments are not discretionary, and the application may only be denied if the applicant is found to be ineligible, inadmissible, or if the application was improperly filed.

If the adjustment application is approved, the effective date of permanent residence is the date the applicant was first admitted to the US as a refugee.

This ‘backdating’ is what allows refugees to be eligible for US citizenship only 5 years after being admitted to the US as a refugee instead of 5 years from when they become a permanent resident (which is the case for people in other categories such as based on employer sponsorship).

Health support in the US

Refugee health screening programs, clinical resources, and access to healthcare varies among each US state. The best medical assistance option available in most circumstances is the existing state-administered program of Refugee Medical Assistance as well as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). For those not eligible for these programs, medical assistance can be provided under the Wilson Fish Alternative Guidelines.

Refugees generally are encouraged to find employment that includes private health insurance cover as basic government medical cover does not always include dental or eye care.

Family reunion

Refugees who entered the US as the principal refugee (i.e not through a relative) within the prior 2 years may petition for certain family members to obtain derivative refugee status.

The only family members that a refugee may petition for are spouses and children (who are unmarried and under 21) when they first applied for refugee status. In other words, the family relationship had to exist before the refugee came to the US as a refugee, so if they want to file for their spouse, they had to be married before they entered as a refugee and their child had to be conceived or born before they entered as a refugee.

Additionally, refugees who become lawful permanent residents (LPRs) or US citizens can sponsor eligible family members the same way that other LPRs or US citizens can sponsor relatives including step-children.

Immigrant visas (or the ability to adjust status to LPR) are always available for immediate relatives of US citizens. This means their family member does not need to wait in line. US citizens can sponsor the following family members under the immediate family relative system: spouses, children (unmarried and under 21) and parents (when the US citizen sponsor is over 21 years of age).

However, preference categories apply to family members who are not immediate relatives. The visas allotted for these categories are subject to annual numerical limits. A visa becomes available to a preference category based on the priority date (the date the petition was filed).

Preference categories are grouped as follows:

First preference: Unmarried, adult sons and daughters of US citizens (adult means 21 or older.)

Second Preference (2A): Spouses of Green Card holders, unmarried children (under 21) of permanent residents

Second Preference (2B): Unmarried adult sons and daughters of permanent residents

Third Preference: Married sons and daughters (any age) of US citizens

Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult US citizens

For example, LPRs can sponsor their spouses and unmarried children (under 21) in the Second Preference 2A category and unmarried adult sons and daughters under the Second Preference 2B category. Both of these categories are not immediate, which means depending on country of origin and category the family member may have to wait several years to get an immigrant visa or be able to adjust status to permanent resident.

It is possible to ‘upgrade’ certain cases when the sponsor becomes a US citizen during the waiting period.

Author: Nikki Dryden, PwC Australia