1. What Is the Definition of a Refugee?
Under both international and U.S. law, a refugee is an individual who has fled his or her country of origin
because of a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group.
This definition of a refugee does not include those who flee their homes but stay within the boundaries of their country, who are classified as “Internally Displaced Persons.” It also does not include those who flee a situation of poverty, a natural disaster, or even violence, unless the violence was specifically motivated by their race, religion, political opinion, or one of the other grounds under the legal definition.
The U.S. government admits individuals for resettlement within the United States only after a thorough individual screening abroad to ensure both that they meet the legal definition of a refugee and that they in no way pose a national security or health threat to the United States. Those selected for resettlement in the U.S. are admitted with legal status and are resettled by one of nine national voluntary agencies.
2. What Is the Process for Refugees Coming to the U.U., and How Are They Vetted for Security Concerns?
There is an enormous difference between the situation of asylum-seekers we are seeing arrive on European borders and the relatively much smaller number of refugees who are admitted into the United States. While countries that are proximate to a refugee crisis may have significant numbers of asylum seekers arrive at their borders before any vetting can be done, those admitted through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program go through a very thorough screening process prior to being admitted to the United States.
The U.S. can technically accept refugees through referrals from its consulates or in specially established cases from NGOs, but in practice, the vast majority are referred by UNCHR. Most of these refugees are either living in refugee camps of in urban contexts outside of camps, and all will be coming from “countries of first asylum” in the Middle East–primarily Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, possibly also Egypt and Iraq. If a refugee reaches Europe, they would then file an asylum claim there, which would invalidate any claim to need the protection of the U.S. (if rejected by Europe, the U.S. could consider the case, but would be unlikely to make a different finding, as their standards are similar to European countries under the UN Convention on Refugees).
While the vetting and review process occurs, those refugees are living in that country of first asylum, whether in a camp or in a city and cannot be considered for entry to the U.S. until their case is finalized and approved.
This process involves the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense as well as the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center. The process generally requires at least 18 months and includes in-person interviews, biometric background checks, and interviews with third-persons who may have information about the individual being considered for resettlement to the U.S. Only a fraction of one percent of the world’s refugees are admitted for resettlement to the U.S. in any given year, so priority is given to those who are deemed to be most vulnerable, including a majority who are women or children. The vetting process for those being considered for refugee status is actually more stringent than that of any other category of visitor or immigrant to the United States. The U.S. refugee resettlement system continues to be a lifeline to desperate individuals fleeing terrorism. See the steps of the security screening process for refugees being admitted to the United States as provided by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
3. What Happens When a Refugee Arrives on U.S. Soil?
Each refugee is welcomed at the airport by a representative of a refugee resettlement agency, often accompanied by one or more volunteers. The resettlement agency is responsible for helping to provide initial housing, cultural orientation, assistance in accessing English language instruction, job placement, and registering children for school, among other responsibilities. Resettlement agencies generally rely on volunteers—including from local churches—to provide a relational connection to each arriving refugee that would like a friend.
4. The EO Is Only for 90 Days While the Security of Our Country Is Given Priority, Why Is Everyone Making a Big Deal of This?
President Trump’s January 27 Executive Order actually contains several distinct provisions, several of which are currently on hold on the order of a federal judge, but other elements of which remain active in place. The most significant elements of the executive order include:
A 90-day prohibition on most travel for citizens of seven particular Muslim-majority countries. This ban—which is not currently in effect while the constitutionality of the order is reviewed by the court—means that people on student visas or who actually live in the US on a non-permanent employer-sponsored visa cannot make a visit to their home country, and those who happened to have been outside of the United States when the order passed would be prohibited from returning. Notably, despite language elsewhere in the Executive Order prioritizing persecuted religious minorities for special treatment, this section of the order excludes those of all faiths, including persecuted Christians or other religious minorities. At the end of 90 days, the ban could and likely will be extended at least for most of these countries: Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly recently stated that, of the seven designated countries, “it’s entirely possible one or two could come off at the end of the evaluation period.”
A 120-day moratorium on refugee resettlement from all countries, with limited exceptions. This provision is also not currently in effect, pending judicial review, but if it were, it would mean that refugees who have completed a very thorough vetting process and been cleared for travel—with plane tickets purchased—would not be allowed to come—and they may not be able to come 120 days later, either, as some of their security clearances will likely have expired, requiring them to re-do various steps of the vetting process. This provision impacts refugees from all countries, and it would impact family members of these refugees who reside in the US, because most refugees resettled in the US are coming to be reunited to a family member.
An indefinite bar on Syrian refugees. While President Trump has publicly expressed concern about the plight of persecuted Syrian Christians, this provision seems to clearly bar all refugees of Syrian nationality, regardless of their faith background. This provision is currently on hold, pending judicial review.
A reduction of the total number of refugees who could possibly be considered for resettlement in Fiscal Year 2017 (which began on October 1, 2016) from 110,000 to a maximum of 50,000. Since more than 34,000 refugees have already been admitted, less than 16,000 refugees will be allowed in through September 30. 50,000 refugees is the lowest “ceiling” that has been declared by any US president since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980—in recent years, the ceiling has usually been set between 70,000 and 85,000. At a time when the world is facing the greatest number of refugees in recorded history, the US had committed to take more refugees—up to 110,000—but as a result of this change, which is not impacted by recent court rulings, 60,000 refugees’ hopes of beginning a new life in the US this year will be deferred, if not dashed permanently.
5. What Is the Effect of the Reduction in the Overall Quota of Refugees in the President’s Executive Order?
The reduction in the total maximum number of refugees who could be admitted this year to the US has several effects, including keeping 60,000 refugees from being resettled this year (and thus, in many cases, spending at least one additional year in the harsh conditions of a refugee camp). This also means that churches will have far fewer opportunities to welcome refugees as an expression of their Christian faith. Furthermore, the reduction will decimate the infrastructure of non-profit refugee resettlement agencies, most of which are faith-based organizations, which will be forced to dramatically reduce staff because there will be far fewer newly-arrived refugees to serve and because of cuts to the per-refugee resettlement grant that they receive from the US State Department, which forms a significant part of the operating budget for most resettlement agencies.
6. What Will the New Legislation in the Executive Order Mean for Refugees Already in the Country?
Refugees already in the US should not be directly affected by the Executive Order, unless they are from one of the seven banned countries, in which case if they were to depart the US, they may not be allowed to re-enter. But there are also indirect impacts on refugees already in the US, such as for those whose family members are refugees awaiting resettlement, as there will be far fewer family reunification cases allowed. Additionally, if budget cuts force refugee resettlement agencies to close or reduce staff, the services available to already-resettled refugees in those communities will be impacted as well. And, of course, the rhetoric about refugees that has surrounded this Executive Order has made many refugees—even those who have been in the US for a long time and may now be US citizens—to wonder if they are welcome.
7. What Will It Mean for Those Waiting to Come?
Many of those currently in the pipeline for resettlement will likely not be able to come, particularly if the Executive Order is upheld be the courts to be constitutional. Even if it is ultimately struck down, with so many fewer slots available for resettlement, many who would have been allowed in will likely now never have that option.
8. How Could This Executive Order Make Us More Unsafe?
A bipartisan group of more than 100 former national security and military officials have expressed their opinion that the Executive Order “jeopardizes tens of thousands of lives” and “will do long-term damage to our national security.” These leaders note that the particular focus on Muslim-majority countries plays into a narrative that the US is at war with Islam, or that we only value the lives of Christians—which feeds into the rhetoric of ISIS and other extremist jihadist terrorist movements, increasing the risk that additional individuals will be radicalized.
9. Can the President Legally Stop Refugees From Being Resettled or Ban Refugees From Particular Countries?
Under the Refugee Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1980, the President is relegated the authority to determine the number of refugees admitted on an annual basis and the countries from which they come. As such, it is within the President’s authority to halt—temporarily or indefinitely—the resettlement of refugees. While Congress could pass legislation amending the President’s authority, it is probably not likely that such legislation would have enough votes to overcome an anticipated veto by the President.
Just as it is within the President’s authority to halt or reduce the resettlement of refugees, however, it is also within his authority to re-start or increase the number of refugees resettled, which is why it is important that he hears from the American people that they want to be able to continue to welcome refugees. We encourage you to advocate by adding your voice to this petition.
10. Can Security and Compassion Co-Exist?
Not only can they co-exist, they have co-existed very effectively through the US refugee resettlement program for decades. Our country actually has a remarkable history of both prioritizing the security of American citizens and extending compassion and hospitality to the persecuted and displaced. It became a campaign talking point to say that “we have no idea” who refugees resettled to the United States are, and that we have no ability to vet them, but these are simply untrue.
The reality is that refugees are already subjected to the most thorough vetting of any category of visitor or immigrant to the United States. If a refugee is referred to the U.S. government for possible resettlement—and less than 1 percent of the registered refugees globally ever are—they begin a screening process that usually takes between 18 months and three years to complete. That process is coordinated between the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense as well as the FBI and National Counterterrorism Center; it includes in-person interviews, biographic and biometric background checks, and a health screening. If there is any doubt of a refugee’s identity or even a hint of concern that they could pose a threat to national security, they are not allowed in. While any system can be improved, this vetting process has been remarkably effective. Since 1980, when the Refugee Act was signed into law, there have been about 3 million refugees admitted into the United States—and not a single one has taken a single American life in a terrorist attack. A Cato Institute analysis calculates the odds of an American being killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist at 1 in 3.64 billion per year. Do those odds really justify a full shutdown on refugee resettlement from all countries—including countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (the top country of origin for refugees last year) or Burma (the top country in 2015), from which extremist Islamist terrorism is not on anyone’s mind as a significant threat?
11. If We Are Pro-Life, Why Should We Be Pro-Refugee?
For Christians, at least, our pro-life ethos is rooted in the biblical teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and thus that all human life has inherent dignity and potential. Because most evangelical Christians believe an unborn child is a human person, most evangelicals oppose the termination of that life. But being pro-life means more than only being anti-abortion—it also compels us to do all we can to protect human life at every stage of development, regardless of the person’s age, gender, religion, country of origin, legal status, or any other qualifier. Refugees, who by definition have fled persecution, are in many cases quite literally running for their lives—and the biblical teaching that their lives matter compel us to do all we can to protect them.
12. Can U.S. Governors Legally Stop Refugees FROM Entering Their State?
The admission of refugees into the United States is governed by the Refugee Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in 1980. The Refugee Act makes clear that the Executive Branch is responsible for designating and admitting refugees. Subsequent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court have reaffirmed that the federal government has the primary responsibility for immigration policy, and that each of the fifty states cannot reasonably set their own policies. Refugees who are admitted through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program are in full valid legal status from the moment they arrive, and like any other American they are free to move throughout the country.
Therefore State Governments can’t actually prevent refugees from entering their territory. But they can make it much harder for them. States play a much bigger role in helping refugees settle in the US than they do with other kinds of immigrants, and are very involved in helping refugees settle in the US — this then gives them significant opportunities to try to restrict or reject Syrian refugees.
13. How Might the Bible Inform Our Thinking About This Situation?
The Bible has a lot to say about how God’s people should respond to refugees and other migrants. In fact the Hebrew word ger—translated into English variously as foreigner, sojourner, stranger, or immigrant—appears 92 times just in the Old Testament, often in the context of God commanding his people to love and welcome those who came as foreigners into their land. Many of the heroes of our Christian faith—David, Elijah, even Jesus himself—had to flee persecution from tyrannical governments seeking to do them harm. The New Testament repeatedly commands us to “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13), which literally means to practice loving strangers—with the hint that, by doing so, we may be welcoming angels (Heb. 13:2).
Welcoming refugees is a tangible way to love our neighbors, part of Jesus’ Great Commandment (Luke 10:27) and to practice the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), treating others as each of us would hope to be treated if we were to find ourselves in a desperate situation, forced to flee to a foreign land.
Welcoming refugees also presents an opportunity to stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted for their faith—which includes a significant number of refugees from various parts of the world—as well as to witness to the love and welcome of Jesus to those of other religious traditions. Since we believe that each person is made in the Image of God, we seek to serve and welcome all those fleeing persecution, regardless of their religious or cultural background.
14. Matt 10:16 Says ‘Be Wise as Serpents’ – Doesn’t This Mean That We Should Be Smart About Security and Who We Let In? Don’t We Have a Responsibility to Do That?
While this particular instruction was not necessarily made to governments, Scripture does make clear that government is a God-ordained institution (Romans 13:1), and our government has a responsibility to protect its citizens. As noted above, our government has done a remarkably effective job of ensuring that it admits as refugees only those who do not present a security risk to the United States.
15. Shouldn’t We Give Priority to Christians?
As Christians, we’re commanded to love our neighbors—and Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan makes explicitly clear that we cannot narrowly define our “neighbor” to include only those who share our faith or ethnicity. Each human being—regardless of religion—is made in the image of God, and all lives are worthy of protection. As such, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to welcome carefully screened refugees of various faiths.
That said, it’s appropriate for North American Christians to be particularly concerned about the plight of persecuted Christians around the world—and the U.S. refugee resettlement program has been a lifeline for persecuted Christians, more of whom have been allowed into the United States in the past decade than those of any other religion.
While we can affirm the president’s expressed concern for persecuted Christian and other religious minorities, the actual implementation of this executive order will quite clearly be harmful for persecuted Christians as well as Muslims.
Most obviously, the order cuts the total number of refugees for Fiscal Year 2017 to 50,000. Since more than 34,000 have already come in—about 43 percent of whom have been Christians—this order will limit to less than 16,000 those who could possibly come in for the rest of the year. Even if all of them were persecuted Christians—which many believe would be a mistake, conveying that Christian lives are more valuable than Muslim or other lives—there would still be thousands of fewer persecuted Christians allowed in as refugees than last year.
Past US policy has been to prioritize refugees for consideration for resettlement based on vulnerability, rather than by religion per se. In some cases, an individual’s Christian faith makes him or her uniquely vulnerable in a particular context, which is why more than one-third of Iraqi refugees resettled to the US in the past decade and about 70 percent of Burmese refugees have been Christians—far higher in both cases than Christians’ share of the population—because they have been uniquely persecuted for their faith.
By explicitly favoring Christians, it feeds into a narrative that the United States does not value the lives of Muslims, which fuels extremist sentiments and could ultimately put Christians and other religious minorities at greater risk. Open Doors USA president David Curry has warned that the new policy “could tragically result in a backlash against Christians in countries plagued by Islamic extremism.”
Finally, if the United States only resettles persecuted Christians, we are closing the door on one of the most remarkable missional opportunities, as those who are not-yet-Christians, including many from entirely unreached people groups, will no longer be allowed into our country, where local churches have the opportunity—in a context with full religious freedom, where all are free to accept or reject the Christian gospel—to interact with them. From an eternal perspective, do we really think Great Commission opportunity is worth sacrificing for a 1 in 3.6 billion chance of being killed by a terrorist attack?
While there is much misinformation about refugees that seeks to instill fear, our response as followers of Jesus must be guided by the repeated biblical command to “be not afraid,” motivated by the compassionate hospitality that we believe was personified for us in Jesus Christ.
16. How Can We Be Sure That These “Refugees” Are Not Actually Terrorists Seeking to Infiltrate Our Country?
Any refugee admitted into the United States undergoes a thorough screening process led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is an absolutely vital element of the refugee resettlement program. In fact, these checks are among the most thorough background checks undergone by any immigrants or visitors coming to the United States. Other countries with resettlement programs have similar checks in place.
The U.S. system of refugee resettlement has a long history of successfully integrating refugees, having welcomed more than 3 million refugees since 1975: the vast majority of refugees are grateful to their adopted country for receiving them. Those selected for resettlement are the victims of governmental persecution and/or terrorism, not the perpetrators, and they tend to be the fiercest critics of extremist groups and tyrannical governments, having suffered at their hands. Throughout this history, there has never been a terrorist attack successfully perpetrated on U.S. soil by an individual who had been admitted to the country as a refugee. In the exceptionally rare cases where someone admitted as a refugee has been suspected of ties to groups interested in harming the United States, it has often been other former refugees from within the same ethnic community who have alerted law enforcement.
17. There Have Been Reductions in Refugee Quotas Previously, Why Is Everyone Making a Big Deal Now?
The ceiling on refugee admissions has never been set at 50,000 since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980. To lower the ceiling so dramatically at a time when the number of refugees in the world is at a historic high is counter to the values of many Americans.
18. How Is This Different FROM Any of Obama’s Directives?
President Obama set the maximum number of refugees who could be admitted annually between 70,000 and 110,000 during the eight years of his presidency. President George W. Bush set the ceiling between 70,000 and 80,000. In both Administrations, unique dynamics—the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the latter case, and the post-resettlement discovery of derogatory information about two Iraqi refugees resettled in 2011—led to thorough reviews of refugee vetting processes. All refugee resettlement was halted for more than two months (but for less time than the current four-month moratorium) after the attacks of September 11; while there was never a formal “hold” on resettlement in 2011, resettlement of refugees from Iraq was slowed for several months while vetting processes were reviewed and while those already-resettled were re-vetted to ensure no additional errors had been made.
19. Aren’t You Disrespecting the President, and Aren’t Christians Asked to Honor Their Leaders?
As Christians, we are called to honor and respect those in positions of governmental authority over us (1 Peter 2:17). But it is possibly to be respectful of the president while voicing disagreement over particular policy decisions—indeed, most Christians would agree that our faith requires us to speak out against injustice. We can—and ought to—do so in a respectful, civil, and non-violent way, sticking to biblical principles and to stating the facts, without conjecturing about the motivations behind public policy decisions which we cannot know.
20. Can’t Christians Just Claim Neutral Ground on This? Let the Government Protect Us and We Will Just Be Compassionate to Whomever We Can?
Christians of various theological traditions will have different views on how the follower of Jesus should engage questions of public policy. However, within a democratic republic where the views of citizens are expected to inform the decisions of elected officials, we can simultaneously “be subject to governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) and “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8)—or at least whose voices are not being heard—whether refugees, unborn children, or any other category of vulnerable person. While we may disagree on precisely how the command applies in the current situation, all Christians are obligated to “Seek justice [and] defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17), and we cannot do so passively.
21. What’s the Difference Between a Refugee and an Undocumented (Or “Illegal”) Immigrant?
In the United States, anyone admitted as a refugee has legal status from the moment that they enter. While these individuals could still face deportation if they committed serious crimes or otherwise violated U.S. immigration law, in the vast majority of cases they become Lawful Permanent Residents and then become eligible after five years to apply for U.S. citizenship. (Canada, Australia, Sweden and other countries have similar resettlement programs).
In the U.S., Canada, and in most parts of Europe, there are also processes to request asylum. Asylum-seekers arrive in a country either on a temporary visa or unlawfully, but claim that they meet the legal definition of a refugee described above. In most cases, these individuals are allowed to stay temporarily in the country while their cases are adjudicated: they must present sufficient evidence to a judge or other governmental official to prove that they are indeed fleeing persecution for one of the reasons elaborated under the law. If approved, in most situations they will be allowed to stay; if denied, they will generally face deportation.
In both the U.S. and in other parts of the world, many immigrants have either entered the country unlawfully or overstayed a temporary visa. While some of these individuals may have valid claims to asylum, others are driven by economic factors, such as poverty or unemployment in their countries of origin, and as such do not qualify as refugees under the law. Under U.S. law, at least, these individuals who are unlawfully present are generally not eligible for the benefits afforded to refugees such as employment authorization, resettlement support, and limited public assistance.
22. This Problem Is Just Too Big—we Can’t Allow All These People to Enter the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Can We?
Resettlement to a third country outside of the Middle East is a last resort, and the vast majority of refugees will stay within their region. For example, Turkey is currently the host country for about 2 million refugees from Syria, with more than 1 million in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan; each of these countries also have additional refugees from earlier conflicts in Iraq and other neighboring countries.
No one is proposing that resettlement to the U.S. or other countries outside of the region should be the primary solution to this crisis, as the ultimate hope is that people who were forced to flee will be able to return home when the conflict is peacefully resolved. A primary focus of our efforts is on addressing the root causes, so that individuals would not be forced to flee, and we are seeking to empower local churches in the Middle East who are responding to human need.
However, given the desperation that at present has left many with no option but to flee, governments in North America and Europe can do their share by accepting a small overall portion of these refugees, relieving pressure on allies in the Middle East who are bearing the most significant weight of this crisis, while also providing support for efforts in those countries to meet basic human needs.
23. Won’t These Refugees Be an Economic Drain on the Countries That Receive Them?
Actually, like other immigrants, the arrival of refugees could actually be a significant economic opportunity for the countries that receive them. While most countries provide refugees with a limited amount of basic assistance when they first arrive, almost all refugees are eager to work and be self-sufficient. A growing national economy depends upon a growing population—who play crucial roles in an economy as workers, consumers, taxpayers and entrepreneurs. While our primary concern for refugees is driven by our faith and our desire to welcome those in a desperate situation in Jesus’ name, the reality is that the arrival of refugees also presents an economic opportunity (listen to this explanation from Oliver August of The Economist).
24. Can I (Or My Church) Sponsor a Refugee Family to Come to the United States?
In order to be lawfully admitted to the United States as a refugee, an individual (or family) must be identified and screened by the U.S. government abroad (often based on initial referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). There is not a mechanism for individual Americans or churches to directly sponsor a refugee family.
However, the number of how many refugees that the U.S. accepts is set by the President each year, in consultation with Congress, and these elected officials’ decisions are influenced by the views of their voting constituents. You can be a steward of the influence that God has given you as a resident of the U.S. by sending a message to the President and to your Members of Congress, asking them to significantly increase the number of refugees admitted to the United States. You can multiply your influence by asking others—whether in your local church, via social media, or in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper—to send the same message. (And, if you’re in a country other than the United States, you can urge your elected officials to take similar actions).
Though there is not a formal legal sponsorship process to bring refugees to the United States, there are many, many opportunities for individual volunteers and for groups from local churches to help welcome and help integrate refugees. The refugee resettlement process is a public-private partnership, with limited funds from the U.S. government being leveraged alongside volunteer hours and privately-raised resources from nine national resettlement organizations. Refugee resettlement agencies rely on these partnerships and ‘small groups’ to welcome families as they arrive. Many refugee families have been arriving without a community there to welcome them. This is such an opportunity for the church to step up.
For example, you and your church could provide basic furnishings for a new apartment, help newcomers to learn English, assist kids in their adjustment to a new school context, and, perhaps most importantly, simply be a friend to people who have in many cases left behind everything and everyone they know. World Relief has programs that empower local churches to respond in about 25 cities. If there is not a World Relief office in your community, use this directory to see if one of the other eight national resettlement agencies has an affiliate office in your community.
25. Can I Adopt a Child Refugee?
It is probably not possible to adopt the children whose images you have seen on television fleeing the refugee crisis in Syria at this time. International adoption law is governed by the Hague Convention, of which Syria is not a signatory. It is also important to note that the refugee crisis has separated many families, so many of the children at risk right now may not actually be orphaned, and reunification with their families should be the ultimate goal.
In response to the larger global refugee crisis, however, there may be opportunities in some parts of the country to serve as a foster parent for an unaccompanied refugee minor. This program is operated by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in collaboration with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service as primary implementers.