House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa
by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
October 27, 2015
Washington, D.C. – Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) appreciates the opportunity to submit its views on the United States Refugee Admissions Program. As the national organization founded by Lutherans to serve uprooted people, LIRS is committed to helping those who have been forced to flee their homes find protection. Following God’s call in scripture to uphold justice for the sojourner, LIRS serves as a leader in calling for the protection of vulnerable migrants and refugees, including children and families from Syria.
For over 75 years, LIRS has worked to welcome over 500,000 refugees to the United States on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In fiscal year 2015, LIRS and its refugee resettlement network partners welcomed 10,519 refugees to their new communities and empowered them to build new lives.
Resettlement in a third country is considered a durable solution and a last resort for only a small fraction of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. LIRS is proud to be one of nine organizations that partners with the federal government, particularly the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to be a part of this solution.
LIRS is dismayed that despite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registering over 4 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are children, only a precious few Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States. LIRS has urged the U.S. government to do far more by resettling 100,000 Syrians refugees in 2016, in addition to the 85,000 worldwide refugees that the President has committed to resettling. In response to past global crises, the U.S. has led the effort to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees — a tiny fraction of those who are displaced — and America has always been better and stronger as a result. With the support of local churches and communities, our nation has the capacity to take a bold stance in welcoming far more of these vulnerable refugees into the United States.
The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) that is located within the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency continually achieves its dual mission to offer resettlement opportunities to eligible refugees while safeguarding the integrity of the program and the United States’ national security. To protect U.S. national security, DHS provides advanced training to its refugee adjudicators on security protocols, fraud detention and fraud prevention. In addition, each refugee considered for resettlement in the United States goes through a multi-layered screening process before coming to the United States. These processes include multiple biographic and biometric checks by U.S. security vetting agencies which are routinely updated, in-person interviews with trained adjudication’s officers and ‘pre- departure’ checks. No case is finally approved until results from all security checks have been received and analyzed.
To add unnecessary security screening mechanisms to this already robust process would needlessly harm individuals who need protection by delaying their resettlement. “Sadly, the Syrian refugee population includes severely vulnerable individuals: women and girls at risk, survivors of torture and violence, and people with serious medical needs or disabilities,” said Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO. “LIRS and our national network stand ready to do what it takes to welcome into U.S. communities the most vulnerable Syrian refugees who cannot return home or integrate in the countries currently hosting them.”
The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program offers refugees safe haven and a chance at a new life, while also bringing tangible benefits to the communities that welcome them. Having endured incredible hardship and unimaginable horrors in their home countries, refugees often spend years exiled in host countries once they flee, awaiting the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Once they are resettled in a third country, refugees routinely become engaged and productive community members, contributing economically, socially, and spiritually to our communities. The support of welcoming communities, congregations, volunteers, employers, schools, foster families and others makes resettlement a successful public-private partnership. The federal government, particularly PRM and ORR, and state governments play a vital role.
In the case of Syrian refugees, the conflict continues to worsen and host countries in the region are increasingly strained and unable to offer benefits or stability. Desperate refugees are risking their lives and the lives of their entire families making dangerous journeys over land and sea to reach safety. Hundreds of thousands have arrived in Europe with the hope of a permanent solution. While most citizens in affected countries in the European Union have reacted with welcome, some governments are choosing to close and militarize their borders to keep refugees out. It is against this backdrop that LIRS and our partners will continue to call on the Administration to resettle more Syrian refugees.
Increased Funding Needs and Necessary Resettlement Reforms
Resources available to individual refugee families and adults through ORR have remained stagnant for many years. To ensure that Syrian refugees resettled in the United States receive the help they need to locate housing, receive medical attention and employment assistance, among other services, and to promote self-sufficiency and long-term integration this funding must be increased. In addition, Congress must authorize and appropriate funds to meet the needs of the additional 15,000 refugees that the President has authorized for admission in FY2016.
While private support plays an important role in the reception and integration of refugees, federal resources are critical to ensure refugees receive essential services. Refugee populations arriving to the United States have changed significantly since the formal establishment of the resettlement program in the Refugee Act of 1980. Today’s refugees are much more diverse and vulnerable than it was more than three decades ago. However, services lack flexibility to be responsive to the diverse strengths and needs of refugees arriving today. Furthermore, ORR’s mandate has expanded over the years from serving resettled refugees to include asylees, Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa recipients, Cuban and Haitian entrants, survivors of human trafficking and torture and unaccompanied children. Because funding has not kept up with these changes in ORR’s mandate and diversifying client needs, ORR has strained to provide sufficient support and services to all of the populations under its care.
Reforms to Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds
Under immigration law, an individual cannot be admitted to the United States if they have provided material support, including insignificant material support, to an undesignated terrorist organization; a member of such an organization; or to an individual the individual knows, or reasonably should know, has committed or plans to commit a terrorist activity. In 2001, Congress enacted legislation that significantly broadened the definition of “terrorist activity.”
As a result, refugees, including many vulnerable Syrian refugees who pose no threat to national security, face denial of protection and resettlement in the United States due to unintended consequences of the overly-broad application of the “material support to terrorist organizations” bar (and related bars) to admission. Indeed, current law threatens to exclude any Syrians who fought with any armed opposition group in Syria (regardless of whether or not the individual applicant was involved in any violations of international humanitarian law or other crimes), anyone who provided “material support” to any opposition force or opposition fighter, anyone who solicited funds or members for such a force, and even anyone whose spouse or parent is found to have done these things.
These bars are duplicative and carry severe consequences. As mentioned previously, refugees are required to pass intense security screenings and background checks as part of the admission process. People who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, or who persecute others are inadmissible to the United States under other provisions of our immigration laws. However, overly broad “terrorism” bars prevent the ability of the United States to provide welcome to bona fide refugees seeking safety.
LIRS’s expertise, experience, and compassion — drawn from decades of welcoming vulnerable newcomers — inspires our advocacy. To address current resettlement needs facing refugees, including millions of Syrian refugees, and improve welcome for refugees in the United States, LIRS makes the following recommendations to Congress:
- Enact pending legislation to strengthen refugee protections and resettlement, including the bi-partisan Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act of 2015 (H.R. 1568).
- Urge the President to authorize the admission of 100,000 Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2016 through an Emergency Presidential Determination on Additional Refugee Admissions pursuant to Section 207(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
- Support alternative mechanisms to resettle more Syrian refugees, including:
- Identifying specific groups of refugees in the region as being of particular humanitarian concern to the United States and designating them for group processing.
- Expanding family reunification opportunities through the USRAP (through the P3 family reunification priority) to allow Syrians in legal status in the United States, even if they did not arrive as refugees, to file affidavits of relationship (AORs).
- Allowing specific NGOs in the region to make direct resettlement referrals to the United States. The U.S. government should provide increased capacity building and training for these NGO partners so they can identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement.
- Utilizing iris scans and additional biometric data that UNHCR has collected for 65-67% of registered Syrian refugees. The use of this data could help reduce redundancies in the USRAP screening process.
- Amend problematic anti-terrorism provisions that define “material support” too broadly.
- Ensure robust funding of the Department of State’s, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee resettlement to better protect and assist refugees overseas and those resettled to the United States, including:
- Funding appropriate for successful support and resettlement of the authorized 85,000 refugee admissions in FY 2016.
- Funding for DHS to make more frequent visits to the region to conduct interviews with refugees slated for potential resettlement. When security concerns make in-person interviews impossible, DHS should consider using video conferencing for interviews.
- Funding to decrease wait times: Security checks are a vital part of the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and have proven successful in maintaining the program’s integrity. Although these safeguards have been enhanced and updated, Congress should authorize sufficient funds such that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), other U.S. security agencies, and the White House have sufficient resources and staff to eliminate delays and redundancies to reduce the waiting time for refugees at significant risk.
- Increased per capita funding for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to allow these agencies to support programming that assists communities and organizations that resettle Syrian refugees to foster a welcoming climate for them, offer services that are tailored for Syrian refugees, and include a long-term focus on their successful integration.
If you have any questions about this statement, please contact Brittney Nystrom, LIRS Director for Advocacy.