Why Expedite American Citizenship for Refugees?

President Trump endorsed a new bill in the Senate introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.) that “will create a merit-based immigration system that protects our workers, our taxpayers, and our economy.” The Cotton-Perdue “Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act” or the RAISE Act is set to:

[A]mend the Immigration and Nationality Act to establish a skills-based immigration points system, to focus family sponsored immigration on spouses and minor children, to eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, to set a limit on the number of refugees admitted annually to the United States, and for other purposes.

I will not go over the entire bill in this post (read here, here, and here for my colleagues’ commentary on the subject). I will, however, address the bill’s provisions regarding refugees.

The RAISE Act limits the number of refugees resettled in the United States in any fiscal year to a maximum of 50,000. This is the lowest refugee admissions ceiling in a decade:


Fiscal Year Refugee Admission Ceiling FY Total Admitted to U.S.
FY 2007 70,000 48,282
FY 2008 80,000 60,191
FY 2009 80,000 74,654
FY 2010 80,000 73,311
FY 2011 80,000 56,424
FY 2012 76,000 58,238
FY 2013 70,000 69,926
FY 2014 70,000 69,987
FY 2015 70,000 69,933
FY 2016 85,000 84,994
FY 2017 110,0001 51,3893
  50,0002  

Source: U.S. Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center.

1 Set by President Obama.

2 Adjusted by President Trump.

3 Through August 31, 2017.


The debate about refugees often revolves around admission numbers — how many should be allowed in — while largely ignoring other issues such as integration and fast-track access to citizenship. But when it comes to welcoming refugees, the question should not just be how many, but how.

Even Pope Francis called on European governments to exercise “prudence”, advising them not to accept refugees beyond their hosting capacities. Proper hosting, according to him, entails providing refugees with “a roof, work, school, language courses” in order for them to “integrate”. Pope Francis is clear:

In theory, we cannot close our hearts to a refugee. But there is as well the prudence of leaders: They have to be very open to the idea of welcoming refugees but they also need to be aware of how to receive them. Because we shouldn’t just receive refugees, we need also to integrate them. And if a country has a capacity to integrate, let’s say 20, let it do that. If it can do more, let it do more. (Emphasis added.)

It is important that every refugee admitted receives the appropriate, personalized help necessary to build a successful life in the United States, even if that means admitting fewer refugees and focusing on better and longer-term care for each one.

Currently, refugees resettled in the United States are assisted for the first eight months by “voluntary agencies” or volags partly funded by the government that help with (among other things) housing, English lessons, cash, job searches, applications for Social Security cards, school registration for children, arranging medical appointments, and connecting refugees with welfare and other social services. But refugees, especially the most vulnerable, are not likely to integrate (economically, socially, or culturally) into the United States in just a few months.

Successful integration is even more crucial in this particular context as resettlement in the United States gives access to citizenship for the resettled refugees and later their families (through family reunification).

The 1951 Refugee Convention does call for a prompt naturalization of refugees: “The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.”

Despite these recommendations, many European countries have not facilitated the citizenship process for refugees. Dr. Marteen Peter Vink from Maastricht University elaborates:

[E]ight [EU] states have no specific provisions related to refugees. In other states, facilitation is minimal. In the Netherlands, the only facilitation mentioned in the law itself is a waiver of the requirement to renounce one’s previous citizenship…In Denmark, the residence requirement is lowered from 9 to 8 years. … One state (Lithuania) requires the same extraordinary length of time (10 years) for both ordinary naturalisation and that of refugees.

The United States’ positioning is quite different. Resettled refugees in the United States are required by law to apply for a green card (legal permanent residence) one year after being admitted. They can apply for citizenship four years later (not five, as the five-year count for refugees starts on the day of arrival).

As a reminder, resettlement, one of the UN Refugee Agency’s “durable solutions”, is “the transfer of refugees from the country in which they have sought asylum to another State that has agreed to admit them as refugees and to grant them permanent settlement and the opportunity for eventual citizenship.”

Citizenship is the most advanced legal status a migrant can obtain and an important component of the integration process. It is, we are reminded by Vink, “a relationship between an individual and a state that entails specific legal rights and duties, such as the right to reside without restriction in the territory of the state of citizenship, the right to vote in elections and the right to hold public office or be employed in selected public sector jobs.”

But whether (and under which conditions) citizenship really stimulates integration remains to be seen, adds Vink. While the transition from foreigner to citizen can be viewed as a sign of full assimilation, reality is much more complex and motivations to naturalize differ from one migrant to another.

Vink explains: “To put it simply, not all migrants have an equal interest in acquiring destination country citizenship, and even when they naturalise this new status does not bring the same consequences for all.”

For some, naturalization does not equate with assimilation but instead encourages return migration to the country of origin or out-migration to another destination. Dual citizenship in this context allows for circular mobility to take place.

Emeritus professor Kees Groenendijk from Radboud University (Netherlands) also questions “whether naturalisation generally reflects a deliberate choice by the migrant to remain and integrate in the society of his country of residence.” He admits that the image of naturalization as “a deliberate choice by immigrants to link their future with that of the host country” dominates the political and public debate. While this may be true of most applicants at the time of naturalization, “the reality is more diverse.” Out-migration after naturalization is not uncommon, as recent data on the Netherlands shows. Groenendijk highlights some of it:

In 2009-2013 a total of 44,000 persons originating from nine refugee-producing countries were naturalised. Within two years of their naturalisation 14% of these new Dutch nationals left the Netherlands. Some returned to their countries of origin, while others migrated to other EU Member States. Within two years of their naturalisation almost 40% of the naturalised former-refugees from Bosnia, Iran, Iraq and Sudan returned to their countries of origin. Among former refugees from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Somalia the return rate was considerably lower (below 10%). The former refugees, who used the right to free movement within the EU attached to their new nationality, migrated from the Netherlands primarily to the UK (40%), to Belgium (9%) and to Germany (7%). More than half of the 6,000 new Dutch nationals who left the Netherlands within two years moved to these three EU Member States.

Groenendijk concludes: “Naturalisation enhances the mobility of new nationals, both to their countries of origin and within the EU.”

The United States provides expedited access to citizenship to the refugees it resettles. The timing could be right to reconsider this.

The Trump administration paused the U.S. refugee-resettlement program for 120 days for reassessment on June 29. This move is security driven; its main purpose is to keep Americans safe and protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry. The reassessment of existing vetting tools is critical in the absence of dependable screening measures for refugees coming from countries of national security concern.

But security issues are not limited to background checks and intelligence information. Vetting (no matter how rigorous) only gives a glimpse of the past and present; it doesn’t secure the future. Even if refugees themselves were to pose no threat upon entry, the risk could come later on as terrorist groups prey on vulnerable communities and recruit the weak and the frustrated who feel somewhat estranged in their host country.

This is why integration is key. Successful integration and shared values are the best shields against terror. Failed integration and real (or even perceived) insurmountable differences in values, culture, and beliefs can lead to alienation, resentment, and, in extreme cases, radicalization.

Reducing refugee admissions into the United States to a maximum of 50,000 every fiscal year is a good thing if it means making sure successful integration is achieved and wounds (mental and physical) are fully healed. After all, the U.S. government is supposed to be resettling only the most vulnerable refugees, such as children at risk, survivors of torture, and those with medical needs. They surely need special and prolonged attention.

There’s another issue here. It is usually the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who refers resettlement cases to the United States and other western countries. Refugees do not get to pick the country they are resettled into unless they are resettled under the family reunification category. Some might not even want to come to the United States; they just want out (whether from a neighboring Arab country or a detention center on an island northeast of Australia) and the United States is the only option presented to them at the time.

This is the case for Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers detained in offshore processing centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the island nation of Nauru. Under a deal made between the outgoing Obama administration and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government and implemented by the Trump administration, they might be resettled in the United States in the coming months. But most of these refugees are not keen on coming to the United States to begin with; Australia was and still is their preferred destination (many have family members already settled there). Also, what prevents these refugees from taking advantage of the American system and going to Australia as American citizens five years from now? Out-migration for naturalized refugees is not uncommon, as Groenendijk pointed out.

Many Syrian refugees are also confronted with tough choices. Firas al Ahmad, a 30-year-old Syrian mechanic, left Jordan with his family to be resettled in Dallas. Let’s listen to him and his wife Samira on the eve of their departure to the United States: “I’m leaving because of my kids, for their future. I hope they can get a good education, and have a better life than the one we had. … The hardest thing is leaving family members behind.” Samira, too, was emotional: “Syria is everything. They say a nation is like a mother. What’s our worth without our mother?” Firas reiterated: “Syria is everything, it is everything to me. The minute the war is over I will go back. Even now I wish it would end today, before we leave, so that we could go home.”

Such emotions are not surprising early on. But is a change of heart certain? The question remains: Why offer Al-Ahmad family (and others) expedited access to citizenship? Will they keep hoping to go back to Syria once the war is over (wars do end eventually)? Will they use their American citizenship as a pass for a better life and a chance for circular (or out) migration?

By the same token, will Australia’s unwanted refugees take advantage of the U.S. resettlement process to finally settle in Australia? There’s no telling.

Nevertheless, it would be wise to slow down the citizenship process for resettled refugees.

As mentioned above, refugees are required by law to apply for a green card one year after resettlement in the United States. The green card is a 10-year (renewable) document that offers almost all the benefits of a U.S. citizenship except for the right to vote and hold public office.

Here’s an idea: Instead of giving resettled refugees 10-year green cards, why not give them two-year Conditional Permanent Residence?

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) explains the conditional process: “A conditional permanent resident receives a green card valid for two years. In order to remain a permanent resident, a conditional permanent resident must file a petition to remove the condition during the 90 days before the card expires. The conditional card cannot be renewed. The conditions must be removed or you will lose your permanent resident status.”

The two-year period allows for a reevaluation of cases after which either permanent residency status is granted or an order for removal issued. This two-year, non-renewable green card is given to, among others, aliens married to U.S. citizens. To remove the conditions on a green card based on marriage, aliens need to prove to authorities that they entered the marriage in good faith and did not get married to evade U.S. immigration rules.

This is not to doubt the good faith of refugees in general. But the reevaluation of cases some three years after resettlement in the United States could be helpful on many levels. It would afford an extra layer of vetting and could uncover false asylum claims that fell through the cracks or spot early radicalization trends. It would also help reveal real motivations (including opportunistic stands) and determine whether the integration process is well under way.

Furthermore, this three-year window might be a chance for refugees to reconsider their stay. Cases of voluntary returns of refugees from Germany (and other European countries) back home have been reported.

The notion that all refugees can easily integrate into Western societies and live happily ever after is an illusion. Refugees might find life in the United States too hard or too different, or simply feel homesick. The situation in their home countries could have also evolved, making return possible.

To conclude, U.S. citizenship is not a commodity, nor is the oath of allegiance just some nice-sounding verses. Real commitment is needed to mean (not just recite) the following:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic …

Humanitarian assistance is necessary, but granting the most advanced legal status to refugees in an expedited manner is not. It is best to allow for wounds to heal and desires to progress.

The U.S. resettlement program needs to be reformed in essence, not just by arbitrarily lowering the number of admissions. As the program is paused for reassessment, now is as good a time as ever.

Click HERE to read more from this author.
 


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