A Day with US Citizenship and Immigration Services Contributed by Stacy Fahrenthold, CMES Visiting Scholar President Obama’s announcement of plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States came at a moment when debates about refugees and international humanitarian obligations had reached a tumultuous pitch. Thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq had begun washing up on Europe’s Mediterranean shores, prompting European leaders to welcome Syrian refugees or, alternatively, to sharply reject them. The November 14 attacks on Paris and the discovery of a Syrian passport (later found to be bogus) among the slain assailants threw into dramatic relief the global predicament that international inaction on Syria has caused: the EU’s failure to reform its asylum process had created a market for smugglers, and across the Aegean they came — an unregulated wave of people who simply cannot return home. The United States’ perspective on the refugee crisis is fundamentally different than that of European countries, because the effects of the crisis differ not only in terms of magnitude but also in structure. The 10,000 Syrians arriving in the U.S. in 2016 come from UNHCR refugee camps in countries neighboring Syria (particularly from Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq). Most of them have entered the queue for resettlement already, a process which takes between 18 and 24 months, all told. Refugees seeking resettlement undergo a strict process of investigation involving nearly a dozen agencies, including the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. intelligence, and security channels. All of this occurs before an applicant is granted entry into the United States. The final group responsible for handling the resettlement process in the United States is Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). On November 19, the CMES arranged for Visiting Scholar and historian Stacy Fahrenthold to present to immigration officers in USCIS’s San Francisco on the Syrian war, the Assad regime’s ongoing displacement of Syrians, and the documentary challenges which confront refugees as they await legal resettlement. USCIS San Francisco holds regular meetings like this to keep its officers trained in global conflicts that cause refugee flows. This was the first meeting on Syria, just days after the President’s announcement and amid sudden public scrutiny over the resettlement process. Fahrenthold gave a brief history of Syria’s 2011 uprising and civil war. The discussion then moved into the complications that displaced Syrians face after leaving Syria, including de facto denationalization by the Assad regime (which since 2013 has denied passports to Syrians in refugee camps or otherwise unable to return to Syria), transnational harassment by Syrian police and intelligence agents, or imprisonment and torture of family members still inside Syria. Each of these challenges further complicate the already-fraught task facing USCIS: how does one prioritize refugee claims, particularly when the documents they carry might be out-of-date, expired, or missing altogether? Though the discussion raised more questions than answers, one conclusion became evident: that for as long as the U.S. resettlement process takes, it is in some small way a means of undercutting the dangerous human trafficking that has become a defining feature of Europe’s refugee crisis. The need for refugee relocation is vast: 4.7 million UN-registered Syrian refugees are currently displaced outside of Syria. As Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador also pledge to resettle Syrians in their countries in 2016, let us hope that the United States will consider expanding its quota further.
center for middle eastern studies