The resettlement process in the United States is arduous, much more complicated than what has unfolded during the European refugee crisis, where people have fled their home countries on foot or by boat.
To process refugees headed to the U.S., international agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security and federally funded refugee-support centers.
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• Refugees from Burma
• Refugees from around Africa
• Refugees from Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan
• Refugees from Southeast Asia
“For refugees coming to the United States, they are one of the most highly vetted group of immigrants who enter the country,” said Donna Magnuson, executive director of the International Rescue Committee.
The 11 separate background checks and interviews that refugees coming to the U.S. go through take an average of 1.5 years.
“So they’re are screening through the FBI, through the Department of Homeland Security, through the Department of Counter Terrorism,” Magnuson said. “There are medical screenings, there are background checks, CIA, and a variety of other things. They have to pass all of those screenings before they’re ever entered into a system that lets them come to the United States.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), the largest resettlement agency in Arizona, works to make this process as smooth as possible.
Case workers are their frontlines. Nadia Cisneros is one of the first faces refugees see when they land in the U.S.
“When they arrive in Phoenix, it’s a really nice thing to witness and experience,” said Cisneros. “We have one week to find an apartment for them -- the place that’s going to be their home. We’re able to provide them with gift cards, bus passes, so they will be able to communicate.”
The Phoenix Police Department works alongside the IRC to orient refugees to basic laws and educate them with fliers in their languages.
Refugees’ legal right to be here doesn’t always protect them from hostility in their new communities.
In 2013, a Burmese father and son were killed in a stabbing at a memorial service. The teens responsible were brought to justice, but this incident exposes how vulnerable refugees can be in a “safer” country.
“Of the years I’ve been doing this, I want to say that we haven’t had incidents of our clients or refugees being involved in violent crimes. If anything, they have been victims of these crimes,” said Cisneros.
Despite these many hurdles, refugees remain resilient, and their communities largely welcome them with open arms.
“We don’t work with refugees. We work with people who have been granted refugee status,” Magnuson said. "They are first and foremost families, moms and dads and children. These are people who had very solid lives before whatever tore them away from their countries. So they come with a vast array of skills and experiences, and want to live the same lives that we do in terms of having a better life for themselves and their children.”
Theirs are stories of survival, but also of hope for better lives ahead.