The U.S. immigration system can be confusing. Here’s a primer on refugees, immigrants who enter the country illegally and how green cards work.
The Trump administration’s attempted changes to immigration and refugee policy highlight a complex system that foreigners must navigate to settle in the United States. The terminology, procedures and rules can be confusing. Here’s a primer:
What is a refugee?
Federal law defines a refugee as someone outside the United States who demonstrates they face or would have faced persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group in the country to which they would be unwilling or unable to return.
Refugees are typically referred to the U.S. by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.S. Embassy or a nongovernmental organization. Once referred, it can take 18-24 months to process a refugee applicant.
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A refugee is not someone seeking a better life for economic reasons.
How many refugees come here?
The number of refugees that come to the United States has shifted with world events, according to Pew Research Center. The U.S. allowed nearly 85,000 refugees into the country during the most recent fiscal year, according to Pew.
The Obama administration last year set a goal to take in 110,000 refugees in 2017. The election’s outcome changed that; the Trump administration says that cap will be 50,000.
How are refugees screened?
Refugees go through a long process that includes security checks with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department.
Applicants are interviewed by United States Customs and Immigration Services officers. Their fingerprints are collected and compared against an FBI database, a DHS database and a Department of Defense database.
Refugees receive a medical screening, then take a cultural class and choose a location to settle.
Before traveling, refugees are again screened by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
What is a green card?
Lawful permanent residents are often referred to as green-card holders, a reference to the color of the card they’re required to carry at all times.
Typically, green cards are issued for 10 years. Permanent residents can apply to renew them after that. After five years (or three with an American spouse), a holder can apply for naturalization and acquire citizenship.
Federal law requires refugees to apply for a green card one year after being admitted.
How do people get green cards?
Immigrants must qualify for a green card through a jobor family members, through refugee or asylum status or by special means.
Congress limits how many people immigrate to the U.S. on visas, which are issued by the State Department.
A U.S. visa is a travel document that allows people into the country. There are nonimmigrant visas for people wishing to stay in the U.S. temporarily and immigrant visas for those wishing to settle in the U.S.
There are more than 30 categories of immigrant visas, according to the State Department’s website.
The State Department issued nearly 618,000 immigrant visas in 2016, according to the department’s website. Most went to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
There is no limit to how many visas are issued for immediate family members, such as the parents, spouses of U.S. citizens and citizens’ unmarried children below age of 21.
What kind of public benefits are available to refugees and immigrants?
Food stamps and welfare are available to legal, qualifying refugees and immigrants, according to the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
There are also cash and medical-assistance programs available to refugees for their first eight months in the country.
What kind of constitutional protections do immigrants have? What about refugees?
Green card holders (permanent residents) have legal protection under all U.S. laws, including due process. They are eligible for some benefits.
Permanent residents cannot vote, hold office or be jurors at a trial. Their travel is not restricted abroad, but they must be careful not to appear to abandon their residency in the U.S. by staying elsewhere too long.
Permanent residents can be deported for a variety of reasons, including some criminal convictions.
What about immigrants who enter the country illegally?
Washington is one of the few states where illegal immigration has risen recently, according to a report published by the Pew Research Center.
Drivers in Washington are not required to have a Social Security number. Immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally can acquire licenses to drive.
Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for state food assistance, according to DSHS. In fact, undocumented immigrants are barred from most state and local assistance programs under federal law, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Federal benefits (including welfare and food stamps) are not available to unauthorized immigrants, except in some emergencies.
Unauthorized immigrants can receive disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Immigrant children who were not legally admitted to the United States have a right to education under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling. In Washington, those students are eligible for free lunch and breakfast programs.
In an emergency, undocumented immigrants might qualify for cash assistance through the state’s Consolidated Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP). They also can qualify for state-funded community programs that provide services like short-term shelters or crisis counseling.
Immigrants who entered the country without authorization have some Constitutional rights, including fourth and fifth amendment protection, according to the Congressional Research Service. This gives immigrants due process rights in criminal proceedings.
In administrative removal proceedings, immigrants have a right to a lawyer, but not one paid for by the U.S. government, according to the Congressional Research Service.