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FAQs on Syrian Refugees, From an Immigration Attorney's Perspective

On Monday, Georgia Governor Deal, as well as 30 other States, called for a moratorium on Syrian refugee resettlement into their States. And just moments ago, lawmakers in the House voted to essentially halt a program aimed at resettling Syrian refugees, a bill that President Obama has vowed to veto, stating on Monday that the U.S. is fully capable of vetting refugees, adding that the Syrian refugees are themselves the victims of terrorism and “slamming the door in their face would be a betrayal of our values.”

This news has sparked much debate and controversy, and needless to say has also fueled anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.  Let’s take a moment to discuss. Here are some questions I get quite often:

·         Question: What is a refugee?
·         Answer: It is important to understand that refugees are a special category of immigrants, unlike any other. A refugee, as defined by the Refugee Act of 1980 (which was an amendment to the earlier Immigration and Nationality Act), is any person who is outside their country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion into the United States’.  This is a very narrow definition, and does not include the thousands of immigrants who enter our borders daily through a variety of other methods, whether temporarily as students or visitors, or permanently as greencard holders.  An individual may enter the U.S. on a visitor visa and then apply for asylum once here, for example. 

·         Question: But refugees pose a security threat because they’re not really vetted, right, because of the urgency that makes fleeing their countries imminent?
·         Answer: Not at all. Refugees are the most security vetted immigrants to the United States. After being designated refugees, refugees go through several months of screening, often over a period of up to two years. Security screenings are rigorous and involve the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies. Then if they go all those hoops (and they are still alive), Immigration and Customs Enforcement can enforce the laws against them if there are any violations once they’re admitted. Chances are if there is someone who intends to harm this country, they are not going through the screening process just outlined, and I would argue that it is in the interest of national security to allow individuals entering the country to be thoroughly vetted.
Further, what we are debating over is 10 thousand individuals, but a vast majority of refugees are women and children. Since most refugees enter with their families, we are talking about 2000 families (assuming an average of 5 people per family).  Compare that with the rest of the world, primarily Turkey and Lebanon, and we are taking just a drop in the bucket.

·         Question: Do States have the legal authority to prevent refugee resettlement in their State?
·         Answer: The short answer is NO, States cannot unilaterally block resettlement. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the President has explicit statutory authorization to accept foreign refugees into the United States. The federal government’s power to admit refugees was created in order to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to the U.S. of refugees of special humanitarian concern and governors do not have the legal authority to determine who lives in their States. However, while immigration matters remain exclusively a federal concern, in reality we must recognize that while States may not prevent refugees from entering their borders, they play a large role in the distribution of federal funds to non-profit organizations that serve refugees, and curtailing such funds would make it very difficult for them to resettle.  Further they can try and put pressure on the federal government to amend immigration laws to restrict refugees or somehow subject them to increased security measures.  

·         Question: If they don’t have the authority to stop Syrian refugees from entering their states, why are these governors even trying?
·         Answer: Because they can. It’s not the right thing it’s the politically popular thing, and it’s an unfortunate way to govern. Public officials should instead avoid knee-jerk reactions that only politicize tragic events such as that in Paris last Friday. Misplaced blame creates an atmosphere of fear. Instead we should stand in solidarity with the Syrian refugees who are themselves victims of ISIS.

·         Question: Even if refugees are not terrorists, they will at the least commit crimes, take our jobs, and otherwise harm our economy.
·         Answer: This is a myth. Refugees, and I would argue that Syrians immigrants specifically, are among the most educated, hardest working immigrants. They are professionals and business owners, and at the local level provide increased demand for goods and services. Countless studies have shown that welcoming refugees has a positive or at least neutral effect on the host community’s economy and wages. A long list of innovative and important Americans were once refugees, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Jerry Yang of Yahoo. Steve Jobs of Apple was himself the son of a Syrian migrant. 

·         Question: Syrians are just taking advantage of the generous refugee laws in our country and the general insecurity in their country and using it as an easy way to immigrate to the United States.
·         Answer: We tend to miss the point sometimes. Syrian refugees are refugees, which mean they are fleeing FOR THEIR LIVES. They are not trying to come to the U.S. to benefit from the prosperity we enjoy, but rather the security we take for granted. Indeed the Syrian refugees would much rather be home than in a strange country. They flee with nothing more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind everything they’ve built over the course of their entire lives, only to have to start from scratch. Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly the kind of terror which unfolded on the streets of Paris, only they have been confronted by violence just like this for almost five years. They do not bring terror with them. Rather, they are fleeing it.

The Syrian crisis has been called the greatest humanitarian disasters of recent times. The image of the body of a young boy washed up on the shores of the Turkish beach echoed around the world last September has become a symbol of the world’s failure to act, humanity’s failure to help. I happened to be on vacation on the exact same beach where the boy’s body had washed ashore, exactly one year before. I cannot even imagine that the beautiful sea that I admired from my cabana on the beach has become a place where you can witness such heart wrenching images.  
Innocent civilians, many of whom are young children, have experienced the worst trauma and torture. The tragic irony is by blocking resettlement is to victimize a people that are attempting to flee the same monsters we fear, sending a message that only plays into the hands of those whose aim is to divide us.  Whether legally or morally, this is not the American way.


  1. Great article. I wish Gov. Nathan Deal would read.


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