Ahmed* was the perfect candidate for resettlement. He fled Iraq for Malaysia in 2007, after working for an American company in Baghdad. There, while completing a master’s degree in information technology, he began to apply for refugee status in the United States. Like all Iraqis who aided the U.S. military and can’t return to their home country safely, Ahmed was eligible for a Special Immigration Visa. There was no security risk – he’d already been vetted in Baghdad. His education made him highly employable.
The process took two years.
“The process to come here, it’s long and complicated,” he told The Politic. “It’s not an easy thing to do. Some people I know, they waited five or six years. I think I was lucky, just by doing it in two.”
Now, Ahmed lives in New Haven. When we spoke over the phone, he’d just started to make dinner, and our interview was punctuated by the faint clang of kitchen implements. It was late – nine or ten p.m. – but he’d recently finished a skills test for a new job (one of three) and couldn’t talk at any other time. Even so, he’s right to say he’s lucky. He’s about as lucky as anyone violently displaced from their home can be. His affiliation with the U.S. military allowed him to bypass many of the bureaucratic hurdles faced by refugees seeking resettlement. There are usually around 20 million refugees worldwide at any given time, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – less than one percent of whom are eligible for resettlement. Under ordinary circumstances – that is, not accounting for crises like the current war in Syria – the United States will take in half of those eligible. In most years, that’s between sixty and seventy-five thousand people.
Except for special cases, like Ahmed’s, these refugees are chosen by the UNHCR and then vetted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. As soon as a refugee enters the United States, her case is passed to the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugee, and Migration (PRM). The PRM, along with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, works with nine non-governmental resettlement agencies to provide services for newly arrived refugees.
The Refugee Act of 1980 codified the voluntary agency system into law, but the history of resettlement in the United States is much older.
“The program began after World War II,” explained William Haney, director of external relations for Church World Services (CWS), one of the nine resettlement agencies. “Things were done on a much more ad hoc basis – a church in New Haven or elsewhere would take in refugees, and they would live with host families and be sponsored by the church.”
Like CWS, most of the national agencies were formed during or after World War II, though there are exceptions – the oldest, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) dates back to 1881, and the newest, the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), was founded in 1983. Though many of the same local chapters are in place today, the agencies have expanded and centralized their operations. The loose, organic networks of the 1930s and ‘40s now do most of their work through 350 local affiliates in communities across the country.
New Haven’s local resettlement organization, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), is a subsidiary of two of the national agencies – CWS and the Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM). They resettle about 230 refugees each year and maintain close contact with another 200. During a refugee’s first few weeks, caseworkers provide housing, furniture, food, and clothes. They also coordinate programs to help refugees find employment, learn English, and access legal services.
All of this happens in a blocky, unprepossessing building on a sycamore-lined street a few blocks from East Rock Park. Its closest neighbors are an abandoned warehouse, a gas station, a handful of faux-Victorian and Cape Cod-style houses, and Wilbur Cross High School. In previous years, IRIS has settled refugee families nearby, but rising prices have made it increasingly difficult to find housing. Shops still have signs advertising halal meat and bodegas sell za’atar on pita, but a new family is more likely to find their first apartment in East Haven or Newhallville.
Culture and demographics are important factors to consider when deciding where to resettle new refugees, according to Will Kneeram, IRIS’ director of Education and Employment Services. The national agencies “distribute” families based on a number of different elements.
“If they have a U.S. tie – that’s a friend or relative living in the country – that’s our first priority,” Kneeram told The Politic. “If not, they’ll look to areas where there are existing populations from the same nationality, culture, or language group.”
New Haven has a large population of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, especially Sudan, Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A strong immigrant community can make it much easier for refugees to adjust to a new culture, which is why Arabic or Amharic speakers are more likely to be assigned to New Haven while a Burmese or Bhutanese family might end up in Hartford. These groups often grow organically, as new immigrants join relatives already in the United States. Others, like New Haven’s Iraqi community, are the result of the refugee resettlement program. It’s no accident that Ahmed ended up in this particular city, which has been a designated site for Iraqis since 2007.
Even with a community in place, it is difficult for refugees to adjust.
“Things like understanding cost of monthly rent and utilities, the process getting kids registered for school, sending paperwork – it’s a huge challenge,” says Kneeram. Refugees must negotiate a system of unspoken legal, social, and cultural assumptions just to find employment, or send their children to school.
Like most of IRIS’s clients, Ahmed initially had trouble finding a job in his field. He worked in retail for three years before being hired as an IT consultant for a small business. Now, he wants to bring his family to the U.S.
“I have a green card,” he told me, “but still, the process I have to go through is very, very complicated, even for my mother and father. I have to be a citizen to bring them, and I have to make a certain income, above $70,000 a year. And that’s just for my parents. I also have two sisters and two brothers, and each of them has four or five kids.”
Ahmed’s relatives still live in Baghdad, He last saw them in May on a trip to renew his passport and birth certificate. Four months later, his frustration was still audible.
“I felt truly sorry for the people who were there,” he said. “It’s not only security issues. There are people who don’t have services there – social services, living services, any type of services.”
Although Ahmed receives legal aid from IRIS, he doesn’t yet know when his family will be able to join him. Even after the legal challenges are cleared, they’ll have to go through the same frustratingly opaque application process.
While being vetted in Malaysia, Ahmed said, “when you’re asked any question – am I going to go there, or what’s going on – nobody will answer you. Nobody tells you O.K., you’re going to the U.S. this time, this is how long it takes. You don’t talk with anyone. You come for interviews and you leave, that’s it.”
Despite its omnipresent bureaucracy, Ahmed still prefers the United States to Baghdad or Malaysia.
“You never have to worry about people trying to kill you.” He cleared his throat and paused before continuing. “Baghdad, I’m going to be honest with you – before 2003, it was a great place to live. We never felt unsafe. People didn’t have a lot of money, but still, it was safe to live. We didn’t have any terrorists, really, before 2003. I know we had Saddam Hussein, and he was a bad guy, we hated him. But compared to that, the situation is worse. Before we had one bad guy, and now we have a thousand of them.”
On a national level, the time lost due to bureaucracy is a major barrier to resettling more refugees in the United States. Deborah Stein, the director of CWS, cited the vetting process as the first major obstacle to increasing quotas.
“We always want to make sure that every safety precaution is taken in terms of vetting refugees before they’re allowed to travel to the US, but that takes a lot of time,” she stressed. “In some cases, it’s an unnecessary amount of time that could be decreased by better coordination between governmental agencies.”
Haney had similar concerns about “the sheer size of the program and the bureaucratic hurdles.” But recent events have left him cautiously optimistic.
“There’s an opportunity now with the Syrian crisis to look at things in a different way than the U.S. has done, to look back earlier in our history,” he explained. “We took in about 200,000 Vietnamese in some years during the ‘80s, and similar numbers from the Balkans in the ‘90s. They were handled differently. There was expedited processing, and refugees were taken out of danger immediately.”
In both cases, the military airlifted refugees out of an ongoing conflict and brought them to military bases in the United States, where they went through a much shorter vetting process before being resettled en masse. Between 1975 and 1994, 690,000 Vietnamese refugees were settled throughout the United States Southwest. Much of the political impetus for the program came from America’s involvement in Vietnam. American politicians felt uniquely responsible for the crisis. In many ways, the situation is analogous to the modern Middle East.
Haney and Stein also agreed on the second major barrier to increasing resettlement quotas – political opinion. The president decides how many refugees the United States will accept annually. This year, it was 70,000. Next year, it will be 85,000, as part of a gradual increase to 100,000 in 2017. Many human rights groups and several of the major refugee resettlement organizations are pushing for the U.S. to accept 100,000 Syrians alone, in addition to the 100,000-refugee cap.
Increasing the cap is largely a political hurdle, Stein told me matter-of-factly.
“A lot of what makes things difficult is the acceptance of Americans to having more refugees in the United States. When politicians see there’s public support for it, they’re much more likely to support it themselves.”
The Syrian crisis has pushed refugee policy into the public eye.
“Look at what happened after that absolutely heartbreaking photograph of that boy washing up on the shore,” Stein said, referencing the recent photo of a drowned Syrian toddler lying alone on a Turkish beach. “That has absolutely galvanized public opinion all over the world. It’s amazing it took something so extreme to grab people’s attention when this war in Syria has been going on for years, and four million people have already been displaced. It’s not like this crisis started with that picture…You can tell by the uptick in calls we’ve been getting.”
According to Haney, the situation at CWS is similar.
“There’s support on the ground in the U.S. to take as many refugees as possible from this crisis. And where there’s a will, there’s a way, in the end.”
* “Ahmed” asked that his name be changed to preserve his anonymity.