ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Council and county executive on Nov. 24 said they are open to resettlement of Syrian refugees in a letter to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
George Leventhal, then-County Council president, said at a news conference Monday that the council and county executive’s message to refugees is the same as before the Syrian refugee crisis.
Leventhal confirmed the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security possess the authority to determine whether people seeking refugee status can settle in the U.S. and that state- and county-level governments cannot make that decision.
“It isn’t really up to us,” Leventhal said.
The county is not without anything to offer refugees, however. Leventhal said at the news conference that the county can provide an inviting community where refugees feel comfortable resettling.
Council members and the county executive said in the letter, “We are disheartened that many governors have expressed opposition to having Syrian refugees make new homes in their states.”
The county offers its services and programs to all residents, including refugees who wish to resettle here, Leventhal said.
In the letter, the county government members endorsed the Homeland Security Department’s screening process.
People eligible for refugee status must be fleeing their home country because they have been persecuted or face the threat of future persecution, and the persecution must be for one of five reasons: race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership in a social group.
Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C., said the screening process actually begins with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the country where the displaced people are located.
Staff in the commissioner’s office supply displaced persons with necessities such as food and water first, Ahmad said.
The federal government determines whether individuals from other countries can obtain refugee status.
Ahmad said that if a person intended to do harm to other people in the U.S., seeking refugee status would be the least-convenient and most time-consuming, risky approach to entering the country.
The interview process for refugees is not required to enter the country with a student visa, a tourist visa or a business visa.
Refugees visit the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for fundamental needs, such as food and water, Ahmad said.
“It is only the beginning,” said Ahmad. “Then they need to be resettled.”
Four million displaced persons from Syria are in the world, Ahmad said. A small percentage will be selected for resettlement in the U.S., partly because displaced persons do not decide where they resettle, Ahmad said.
The high commissioner for refugees determines where the refugees will resettle.
If the agency decides the U.S. is the destination, U.S. government agencies will fly the displaced person into the country, said Ahmad.
Ahmad compared eligibility to be a refugee to a ticket to a football game. One could have been eligible according to the UNHCR but still be refused access if the person posed security risks after screening.
Then the person will undergo the U.S. screening process, which can take 1.5 to three years, Ahmad said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services within the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for overseeing immigration to the U.S.
In the U.S. the next part is a series of one-on-one, face-to-face interviews, Ahmad said.
“It’s a pretty extensive vetting process,” said Ahmad.
“Asylum officers and refugee coordinators are really, really good at piecing together stories being told by people,” Ahmad said.
Refugee coordinators compare reports, documents, news articles and social media as part of their background checks, Ahmad said.
Ahmad said many refugees do not have documents because they left everything behind when they fled, but this does not bar them from being allowed to resettle in the country. It’s possible to get through with just their story and the information to which the refugee coordinators have access.
“The story has to be sufficiently detailed, sufficiently corroborated,” Ahmad said.
People could pass the background checks but then mess up their stories in interviews and not ultimately be permitted to resettle, Ahmad said.
Through interviews and background checks, government agency workers determine if the person is eligible and qualified to be a refugee. They also check the facts of the person’s story and search for evidence of undesirability in the candidate. A person could be barred from resettling in the country due to infection with a transmittable, life-threatening illness or through affiliation with a terrorism organization, Ahmad said.