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Violence and persecution have forced more than 65 million people around the world to flee their homeland as refugees. That’s more than the combined populations of Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
The U.S. has welcomed more than 3 million refugees since the late 1970s, according to David Androff, an Arizona State University associate professor in the School of Social Work. But part of that flow stopped after President Donald Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 temporarily halting entry for foreign nationals on visas or on refugee status from seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia). A federal judge in Seattle has blocked the order nationwide, a ruling Trump has vowed to fight.
Androff, meanwhile, says there are misconceptions about the process as a whole. For five years, he has worked with a team of social workers to assist refugees in Arizona and written extensively on the topic. ASU Now reached out to him to better understand the refugee vetting process, the challenges refugees face and their perceptions of life in America.
Question: How strong is the vetting process for refugees relocating to the U.S.?
Answer: Refugees are among the most vetted people in the country. I would describe the vetting process as extreme. The misconception is that it is not already extreme. It’s very, very thorough, and I think it’s very hard to get in. Before they arrive, they’re processed through all of our external agencies, like the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and they run really intense background checks.
Q: Typically, how long does it take for refugees to be allowed in the U.S.?
A: They essentially go through a year-and-a-half to two years of background checks, security clearances and a waiting period with all the major law enforcement agencies. People can wait even longer.
Q: Who determines where refugees will be settled once they arrive here?
A: It’s really a collaborative process, but it is essentially the federal government in consultation with resettlement agencies.
Q: What are the factors when the government is deciding where to settle refugees within the U.S.?
A: They do it based on where refugees have family members, as well as their best prospects for employment. They make a judgment of how the local economy is doing. Phoenix is historically seen as a great place to resettle because we’ve had such a strong economy over the years in terms of availability of low-skilled labor.
Q: Is it only government agencies involved in the settlement of refugees?
A: No. Refugee resettlement has always been a private-public partnership. The federal government provides some of the funding but the actual work of receiving them goes to private agencies, which are predominantly faith-based, like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services. There are about 10 or 12 of these “voluntary” agencies.
Q: Once refugees land here, what do they generally expect?
A: They have very high expectations about life in America. They know we’re the richest country in the world. They think we’re all rich, and they expect to get rich, too. They’ve seen the Hollywood movies; they know what to expect. But the reality, when it sets in, can be heartbreaking. There are so many challenges that they have to overcome — things Americans take for granted, such as how to get around town, how to interact with people, how to figure out the school system, what is expected of them by American society. They have to figure out these things from scratch.
Q: What are the prospects for success among refugee populations once they arrive?
A: It’s a question of how you define success. I don’t think there really is a good idea or concept of what a picture looks like of a happily integrated or resettled person. There is still a lot of debate around that. The main policy, the 1980 Refugee Act, which was a major bipartisan effort in the context of the Vietnam War, emphasizes economic sustainability with the main goal being to get them on their feet and working as soon as possible. I would say that’s largely successful in achieving that goal but part of my work has been to look beyond that.
Q: What do you mean by “look beyond that”?
A: Just because you are working, is that really a path to integration for you and your family? If you’re in a low paying job, perhaps not. So we’re trying to do things like social entrepreneurship. I fear that too many of them get pushed to low-income, low-skill jobs just to achieve this policy. Yes, it’s true they are working, which is better than not, both for their family’s well-being and their personal sense of responsibility. But you’re not really going to get ahead in society that way.
Q: How common are acts of violence, whether terrorism or otherwise, among these populations?
A: Extremely rare. From my work with the refugee communities here in Arizona, what you hear more often is that they’re victims of crime themselves. Just being in metropolitan areas they’re exposed to violent crimes. So that’s more common. I’ve never heard of any refugee-on-American violence here. The couple of cases in the Midwest last year were the first time I ever started to hear of that. Acts of terror are frequently misattributed in the media to refugees, but they aren’t people that were brought in with a refugee status.
Q: In your experience, what else is helpful to know or realize about refugees in the U.S.?
A: Refugees love America. In some ways, I feel that they are more patriotic than most Americans. They want to be here. They’re excited to be here. They know what a great country it is. They have a lot to contribute, and I don’t think it’s right to look at them as a burden or potential threat. They bring incredible diversity in the positive sense of the word. Because they come from another place, they can see the value of America through new eyes, and that’s inspirational. We’re stronger with them here because it’s a reminder too of the strengths of our political and economic systems compared to other places in the world that don’t do it as well.