On U.S. Immigration Policy

An Interview with Katy Frank

US migrants' faces
On U.S. Immigration Policy : An Interview with Katy Frank - The Editorial Staff


Katy Frank was employed as a lead instructor for the Refugee Affairs Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She is a subject matter expert in U.S. refugee law, policy, and processing having designed and delivered curricula on topics such as refugee law, U.S. immigration law, interviewing skills and cross-cultural communication. The following is the text of a written interview with her conducted by the SAIS Europe Journal Staff.

1. The U.N. reports that there are over 43 million refugees worldwide, the most since the 1990s. What prevents the U.S. from accepting more refugees?

As of January 2014, the UNHCR reported that it had identified more than 11 million refugees worldwide.[1] That higher number quoted in the question includes other populations, including internally displaced persons and returned refugees, that the UNHCR assists. Nevertheless, the ceiling for U.S. refugee admissions this fiscal year is still only 70,000, and so the U.S. will not come close to resettling all of the world’s refugees in any given year.[2]

What prevents the U.S. from accepting more? First, the U.S. has to balance its response to humanitarian crises without overwhelming the local communities where these new immigrants are arriving. That being said, the U.S. still takes the lion’s share of refugees referred to third countries by the UNHCR; for example, in 2010 and 2012 the U.S. resettled 79% and 67% of all refugees UNHCR referred for resettlement, respectively.[3] It is also important to remember that third country resettlement presents its own host of daunting challenges, and many refugees would prefer to return to their home countries. Therefore, resettlement in third countries like the U.S. is reserved as a solution only when UNHCR’s other durable solutions — namely, voluntary return to the home country or local integration in the surrounding region — have already been tried and exhausted.

2. How does the U.S. determine refugee admission quotas?

Every year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of State (DOS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) collaborate and consult with the U.S. Congress to propose refugee admissions ceilings. Refugee admissions ceilings for each region of the world are based on humanitarian needs, U.S. foreign policy concerns, and what resources are available to the U.S. refugee program.[4] However, even if the ceiling has been reached U.S. immigration officials can still approve additional refugee applicants for resettlement. If an admissions ceiling has been reached, that just means that eligible refugees will not be able to travel to the United States until the next fiscal year and budget cycle begins.

3. How does the U.S. prioritize which refugee groups are admitted?

Every year, the same federal agencies I just mentioned (DHS, DOS, HHS) collaborate through consultations with the U.S. Congress to propose priority groups for refugee resettlement.[5] How do they decide which of the millions of refugees worldwide we should prioritize today? At times, I still find this selection inscrutable even after the years I worked inside the U.S. refugee program. With each refugee group that is prioritized the answer is slightly different, but it is usually due to a combination of humanitarian and foreign policy interests.

For example, in 2008 all "Iraqis associated with the United States" were designated as a priority once it became clear that sectarian violence in Iraq was not ending. This designation took place after heavy advocacy by American civil society and lawmakers like Senator Edward Kennedy until ultimately, U.S. political and humanitarian interests dovetailed to prioritize its Iraqi allies. As a result of this designation, 84,902 Iraqis have entered the U.S. over the past seven years as refugees.[6] Despite recent political turmoil all over the Middle East, DHS has rushed immigration officers to process Iraqis trapped by the war in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq proper and all over the region. Furthermore, the U.S. Secretaries of State and Homeland Security, with the U.S. Attorney General, have authorized exemptions from some inadmissibility laws, allowing more Iraqis to be approved as immigrants.[7]

Meanwhile, around the same time frame, Bhutanese refugees in Nepal were also designated as a priority group. Over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees had been stuck in an intractable situation in Nepal since the early 1990s. Years of repatriation and local integration efforts with Bhutan and Nepal had spun their wheels for years, stalled and failed. In contrast to the Iraqi refugee crisis, U.S. political interest in this case was not glaring. However, this was a population that seemed to pose very little security risk to the U.S. yet had a dire humanitarian need and was hosted by a local government friendly to resettlement operations.

This fiscal year, the U.S. refugee program continues to prioritize Iraqis and the Bhutanese in Nepal as well as groups such as religious minorities from Iran, ethnic minorities from Burma, Congolese in Rwanda, and others. No doubt because of political alarm raised by the dangerous conditions of unaccompanied Central American children migrating north, the U.S. has also designated minors from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala with lawful relatives in the U.S. as a new priority group. In addition to these groups designated by Congress, the U.S. will also continue to resettle refugees of all nationalities referred to the U.S. by UNHCR, as well as qualified family members of refugees already living in the United States.[8] None of these groups have priority over another — in general, the resettlement of each population is treated with equal urgency and expedition.

4. There are millions of Syrian refugees escaping the Syrian Civil War. What are the challenges the U.S. faces in situations like this when there is such a surge of need?

This is a pressing question, considering the dire nature of the Syrian crisis. For those of us who had the privilege to see Syria before 2011, it is distressing to watch Syrians be subjected to the current nightmare of violence and chaos. However, as far as U.S. refugee resettlement goes in the case of Syria I can surmise two formidable challenges thus far.

One challenge for the U.S. will be who to resettle. With the conflict far from over, it is difficult to foresee whether the U.S. should prioritize opponents of Assad, who are currently in danger of persecution by Assad’s government, or groups like the Syrian Christians who have supported Assad because they are afraid of being persecuted by other groups who want power. With no post-conflict government in sight, it is difficult to foresee who will be most in need of permanent third country resettlement as a durable solution.

A second challenge for the U.S. is the nature of the conflict, as there has been widespread civilian contact with a myriad of armed groups. U.S. immigration law contains provisions that make many people inadmissible as immigrants if they willingly gave support to groups engaged in armed conflict. Therefore, many Syrians may face obstacles to admissibility as immigrants under current U.S. law.

5. The United States is a large country -- how is it the U.S. determines in which cities to settle refugees?

Refugees can be resettled in big cities or small towns in all 50 states. The U.S. Department of State has agreements with nine domestic nongovernmental organizations to provide refugee resettlement services in American communities. Each week the heads of these nine organizations hold an “allocations meeting” during which they assign all refugees who are “travel ready” to one of these nine organizations based on family composition, medical conditions, language and the refugees’ close personal ties. Then each of the nine organizations decides internally where to send the refugees allocated to them for resettlement based on those factors as well as the cost of housing, availability of entry-level employment, and social services available within the communities where they operate.

6. What are some of the key challenges to refugee resettlement?

The first challenge with regard to resettlement is the pace, which can seem interminably slow in the face of the urgent needs faced by refugees. Some individuals access the U.S. refugee program and are able to travel within a matter of months. Other families wait years between their first contact with the program and their flight to the U.S.. While they are waiting for the results of their resettlement application, elderly and sick people may die of natural causes.

Even in the best cases, adults may deplete all of their savings and children may fall behind in school waiting in a host country where they may have no rights to work or study.  Some return to their home country out of necessity and are harmed in some way. Others are harmed by perpetrators from their country of origin who have pursued victims across regional borders.

So why these delays? First, U.S. immigration officers must conduct an in-person interview to determine that the refugee applicants are eligible for resettlement according to U.S. law. Security checks are run as a further failsafe against fraud and criminal or terrorist activity. Medical exams are given to ensure that no refugees are traveling with communicable diseases. Meanwhile, as I said before, the refugee’s case must be allocated to a resettlement agency stateside to ensure that refugees will receive a hot meal, housing, financial assistance, help to find a job and learn English and enroll in school, and medical services once they step off the plane in the U.S.

Then there is the second challenge of adjustment to life in the U.S. after resettlement. It is a new culture, a new language, and refugees must learn to support themselves financially after just a few months. In January 2010, the U.S. Department of State responded by doubling the Reception and Placement grant awarded to refugee resettlement agencies to $1800 per capita. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a host of financial programs to aid refugees for several months after arrival, and to aid the states absorbing refugees in their communities.[9] However, the U.S. legal framework does not support unconditional public aid, and it often difficult for refugees to find their footing by the time aid ends.

7. It seems that there is constant rhetoric on immigration policy, but not always significant progress. Is it an issue mired in politics, or are there other impediments to advancement?

Happily, the U.S. refugee program has been one that has united partisans across the political aisle. In the common narrative of U.S. history, early immigrants came from England to escape persecution, and I think this compelling narrative of flight from persecution to freedom is one that still unites many Americans today. Therefore, since its official inception in 1980 the U.S. refugee program has not encountered any major disruption due to changes in national leadership.

Perhaps the biggest political roadblock facing the U.S. refugee program is how to keep the pipeline of refugee protection flowing while safeguarding against national security concerns. In the aftermath of September 11th, sweeping anti-terrorism provisions were written into U.S. immigration law. At the same time, many refugees come from conflict zones where armed groups are operating. Therefore, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Justice have been painfully carving out exemptions to those broad anti-terrorism provisions so that the U.S. can still admit refugees who need protection and pose no risk to the United States.

Since two Iraqi refugees were apprehended on terrorism charges in 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was also obliged to implement more stringent security checks and cross-check their data with other agencies. These new checks slowed refugee processing in many cases for a period of time. How to respond effectively to the tension between human security and U.S. national security needs may be the biggest challenge for the U.S. refugee program today.

8. There are evident challenges for coordinating U.S. immigration policy. How difficult is this coordination for a supranational entity like the E.U.?

Compared to Europe, I think players in the U.S. refugee program have it easy in that they are so interconnected. In the U.S., all nine organizations who resettle refugees receive guidance and grants from the same bureau within the U.S. Department of State. Every immigration official who interviews asylum seekers and refugee applicants is trained by the same directorate within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. refugee policy comes from that same directorate. However, in Europe, every member country comes to the EU with its own bureaucracy, constitutions, law, court systems, culture, funding, and so on. Therefore, the EU has to work much harder to develop common interpretations of law and comparable frameworks for refugee resettlement.

9. In your opinion, what are the biggest gaps in U.S. immigration policy?

I think we need many more temporary worker visas available in industries that have trouble attracting American workers, and we need to make it easier for workers and employers to obtain and renew visas. It’s a win-win: they need jobs, and U.S. employers need those workers to support their businesses.

I also think we have a great responsibility to collaborate with our neighbors to the south, particularly in Mexico. Our Mexican neighbors suffer from savage drug-related violence driven by U.S. demand for illegal drugs and guns purchased from our own shops in the United States, which are then smuggled back into Mexico. In 2013, the number of homicides due to drug-related violence in Mexico alone was comparable the number of deaths due to terrorist attacks worldwide. As a result, I think we have a great responsibility to assist and protect Mexican citizens in any way we can, whether through drug reform, gun control or immigration policy that enables them to find safety in the United States.

10. Could you explain why we have seen a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America?

Horrendous gang and drug-related violence has long propelled migration from Central America, particularly because adolescents are prime targets for forced recruitment by gangs and cartels. The recent surge, which started in the fall of 2013 and continued throughout 2014, was due to false rumors spread by human smugglers that a new U.S. policy would allow them to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation. In 2012, a new U.S. policy called Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) did indeed provide exemption from deportation for illegal immigrants who had entered the United States before their 16th birthday and before June 2007. However, this policy does not apply to the unaccompanied minors swept up in the most recent surge.

11. There is also the possibility for a surge in refugees due to natural disasters and climate change. How does U.S. policy account for this possibility?

At this point in time the U.S. refugee definition does not include individuals fleeing from natural disasters, and neither does the UN definition from the 1951 Convention.[11] In the U.S., people affected by environmental disasters can be granted Temporary Protected Status by the Secretary of Homeland Security, which allows those people to stay and work legally in the U.S. until it is safe to return home. For example, after the devastating earthquake in January 2010, Haitians residing in the U.S. were granted Temporary Protected Status for 18 months. Aside from that I have not seen any attempts by Congress to expand the U.S. refugee definition to include persons fleeing from climate change. Since over 20% of Americans do not even believe in the reality of global warming, it is difficult for me to envision what the U.S. response to such a crisis might be.

12. Will immigration be an eternal source of controversy for the U.S.?

Immigration always becomes a controversial topic when economic times are hard. With economic downturns people become afraid of unemployment, and they fear immigration will create further strains on the economy or limit their chances for available jobs. Of course that is only part of the picture, as immigrants often stimulate the economy by opening small businesses, re-populating dead neighborhoods and supporting industries like farming and construction that struggle to attract American workers. We also need visitors and immigrants to come to the U.S. and stimulate our economy as tourists, or as students at our universities, or as entrepreneurs with capital to invest, or as talented professionals in our industries. However, when times are hard people and politicians look for someone to blame and immigrants often become a target. I just hope that we can work through our fears with reasonable immigration law and policy, and that we can continue to honor our history as a nation of immigrants by welcoming new Americans with opportunity on our shores.

Notes & References

  1. http://www.unhcr.org/539809d40.html
  2. http://www.state.gov/j/prm/releases/docsforcongress/231817.htm
  3. http://www.unhcr.org/4fbd04af9.html and http://www.unhcr.org/52693bd09.html
  4. http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/232029.pdf
  5. http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/232029.pdf
  6. http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/iraqi-refugee-processing-fact-sheet
  7. http://www.uscis.gov/laws/terrorism-related-inadmissability-grounds/terrorism-related-inadmissibility-grounds-exemptions
  8. http://www.state.gov/j/prm/releases/docsforcongress/231817.htm
  9. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs
  10. http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees
Katy Frank was employed as a lead instructor for the Refugee Affairs Division at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She is a subject matter expert in U.S. refugee law, policy, and processing having designed and delivered curricula on topics such as refugee law, U.S. immigration law, interviewing skills and cross-cultural communication. As a Refugee Officer since October 2008, she traveled worldwide and interviewed thousands of refugees--primarily from Burma, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Cuba and Colombia--as they fled from their home countries, and made recommendations to the U.S. government for their protection. She holds a master's degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University's School of International Service (SIS), with a research focus on migration and refugees. As a graduate student she won a diplomatic fellowship from the Boren Foundation's National Security Education Program (NSEP), and spent the 2006-2007 academic year in Mexico City working with migrants, asylum seekers, and survivors of human trafficking in collaboration with Sin Fronteras and the International Organization of Migration (IOM).