The Syrian refugee crisis continues to dominate the airwaves, while the U.S. government has announced that the number of refugees being allowed in the U.S. will be increased from 70,000 to 85,000 (in 2016) and 100,000 (in 2017). Much dialogue continues around refugees in our community on a political, economic and humanitarian level. The greatest concern raised about refugee resettlement is that we don’t know if this is safe for our community.
What we see currently on the news — migrants running over borders in Europe by the thousands and being granted asylum by some — is not the way refugee resettlement happens in America. The U.S. Resettlement program is very restrictive and includes in-person security interviews, medical exams, interagency security checks and proof of oppression.
The security measures that each refugee must go through to be admitted to the U.S. are detailed and extreme. The United Nations, which refers most of the refugees to the U.S. for resettlement, works hard to determine the validity of the story of each refugee. Once that is done, they are referred to the U.S. The Department of State has set up Refugee Processing Centers around the world where these refugees are interviewed in person by immigration and customs officials from the Department of Homeland Security.
Next, every refugee undergoes multiple security checks in order to be approved for U.S. resettlement. Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the U.S. The screening includes the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and other agencies. Once U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determines that an individual qualifies as a refugee and has met all health and security requirements, he or she is cleared for resettlement acceptance and travel to a local community.
For fear of our safety and way of life, it is understandable for us to question the wisdom of resettling refugees in our community. But for Arrive Ministries, our desire to welcome more refugees is driven by our Christian faith. The Bible speaks clearly and frequently of God’s concern for the vulnerable, with refugees mentioned in particular as individuals whom we should welcome and protect. After all, Jesus himself was a refugee.
The U.S. system of resettlement has a long history of successfully integrating refugees, having welcomed more than 3 million of them since 1975. Those selected for resettlement are victims of persecution and/or terrorism, not perpetrators, and they tend to be the fiercest critics of extremist groups and tyrannical governments, having suffered at their hands. In the exceptionally rare cases where someone admitted as a refugee has been suspected of ties to groups interested in harming the U.S., it has often been other former refugees from within the same community who have alerted law enforcement.
Is there a chance that someone could slip through the system and look to do more harm than good in our country? Of course, there is; we acknowledge that. But that slight chance should not stop us from responding to the needs of thousands of persecuted and desperate people. We don’t stop giving to the poor because one person takes advantage of us and we don’t stop helping the homeless because one man “puts himself in that situation by his own choices.” Nor should we let the fear of a few keep us from compassion for the many.
Bob Oehrig is executive director of Richfield-based Arrive Ministries, which helps resettle about 400 refugees each year in the Twin Cities (www.arriveministries.org).