I have been listening carefully to the immigration debate and discussions in this country and have come to the realization that most everyday people do not have a clear grasp of how our immigration system works and how it affects those migrating to the US. While not an expert, I have taken a 40 hour class on Immigration Law and can explain some of the rudimentary elements of our system.
First, when we hear about immigration on the news, the various categories of immigration are lumped together and important distinctions between a refugee, and asylee, and TPS are seldom made, making it confusing for people to grasp the implications for our country. I wish to lay out some simplified definitions and answer some of the questions I often hear everyday folks ask. Since this is only the first in a series, know that immigration includes many different categories and these are only three. More to follow. (Home Land Security Chart on differences between refugees and asylee)
What is a Refugee?
A refugee is someone who leaves their country because of war or conflict and can show that he or she has a credible fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion in their country of origin. A refugee often leaves his or her own country and travels to a refugee camp where they reside until at which time either their country of origin is safe once again or they are assigned a country that will take them in and help them resettle.
A refugee is vetted in a two year process with background checks, finger print checks and other kinds of vetting to ensure they are not a threat to their new country. (Read more at World Relief). Many refugees remain in a refugee camp for 10 or more years living in tents and other sorts of temporary housing. Various organizations such as Feed My Starving Children often bring food and other necessities to aid them while they are in the camp. Refugees do not have a choice as to which country they are assigned unless they have family members in a particular country.
When a refugee comes to the United States they are often aided by various refugee agencies who help them navigate their new community and provide them translation services and host homes. They also gather necessary items that will help them set up their households when the time comes for them to launch into the community on their own. Many of these agencies are faith-based. A new US refugee is given a work permit and is able to receive some temporary public benefits such as health care, cash assistance, food stamps and housing subsidies for a time until they find jobs and get on their feet. After being here for a year a refugee can apply for residency and subsequently citizenship after 4 years. They do not remain very long on public benefits and often start businesses and other enterprises. At times, very well educated refugees take jobs beneath their level of education in order to become self-sustaining and retain their dignity while they are learning the English language.
While there are 65 million refugees world wide, the US will only receive a fraction of them. Here is a chart that shows the numbers of Refugees around the world.
Video from the Department of Homeland Security
What is an Asylee?
An asylee is similar to a refugee in that they must show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion in their home country. However what is different is that an asylee travels to the US without prior approval and asks for asylum at the border. Once here, asylum seekers are held in detention until it can be shown that they have a credible fear of persecution. Unfortunately, this can take a long time and often already traumatized asylees are held in detention centers that are like a prison. Once their cases are approved they can apply for a work permit and after a year they can apply for a green card and then after 4 years they can apply for citizenship.
What kind of benefits can asylees receive? (USCIS) Once approved asylees can receive help in finding work, career counseling, and occupational training skills as well as financial assistance and health care. Again, it is because asylees have been in vulnerable and challenging life circumstances and are in need of a hand up to get on their feet in a new country. However Refugees and Asylees are of the few categories of immigrants who can receive benefits. Research has shown however, that they quickly are able to become self-supporting and no longer need such assistance. (Migration Policy Institute).
One of the key issues is holding asylees in detention centers that are inhumane and expensive. There are safer, more humane ways of tracking asylees with ankle bracelets. They can reside with relatives or friends and minor children can be placed with any relatives present or in foster care. The UN has asked the US to do away with detention centers. (UN Urges US To Do Away With Detention Centers)
What is Temporary Protected Status?
TPS is given to persons whose home country is unsafe for them to return due to war, natural disaster's such as earth quakes and outbreaks of epidemics such as Ebola. Because they cannot return, they are given a work permit and travel authorization. It is a temporary status and does not lead to permanent residency. However it is possible to apply for permanent residency under very limited circumstances such as if one marries and one's spouse files a petition, or if one has a sponsor or is eligible for an employment visa. It is designed as a temporary protection when one's home country is unsafe for a period of time. (USCIS Countries given TPS)
Many issues arise when one has TPS for many years due to the instability of one's home country. And TPS persons often have citizen children and create productive lives here in the United States. Returning disrupts lives and relationships and communities. Also, TPS can be ended prematurely even when it is still unsafe to return to one's home country. At times our nation has extended TPS for those whose nations are still unstable. Outside of a narrow range of categories TPS recipients cannot apply for permanent resident status and remain in the US.
TPS recipients are not eligible to receive welfare benefits but are granted work permits that allow them to work and sustain their lives through their own ability. Read more here (USCIS).
These are just a few of the ways immigrants come to the United States especially when they are persecuted in their home countries or learn that it is unsafe to return home.
There are many other categories of visas and ways of immigrating to the US that I will write about in my next blog post. But I leave you with this. Very few people come to this country simply because they want welfare benefits or to suck on our welfare system. Especially those who come in the above mentioned categories. They want to find safety and better lives for their children. Many come with dreams of receiving an education and starting a business. Frankly they are some of the most creative people here today. These immigrants contribute their creativity in our nation and offer many gifts to us. I wish we would welcome them and the contributions they seek to make.
I wish that our country would be less afraid of refugees and asylees and consider what it would be like to be in an unsafe situation or to bear persecution for deeply held beliefs. I believe that we have a duty to offer humane treatment to those fleeing persecution and war. We would want the same treatment if it were people in our country who were experiencing such persecution.
Scripture reminds us to do to others as we would have them do to us. (Luke 6:31).
What would it be like to leave family and friends and all of one's belongings?
What would it be like to come to a place and not be able to communicate with neighbors?
How would you feel if you were being persecuted based on your faith or political beliefs?
How would you feel if you or your family members could be killed for remaining in your country?
What would it be like to live in a tent for 10 years?
If our nation were under siege, would you want to find safety in another country?
As people of faith, how can we create a more humane system that would show the love of God for those experiencing the most challenging life conditions?