Anyone paying any attention to the news over the past several weeks is aware that Libya is in the midst of a political upheaval inspired by the successful, peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Sadly, the Libyan situation has become very violent: as the Libyan government has stubbornly clung to power, as many as 6,000 people have already lost their lives, and about 200,000 people have fled, seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
While most of those fleeing are expatriates seeking to return to their countries of origin, some are Libyan nationals, who have no country to which they can safely return. I know that many of us have been watching the Internet and the television and grieving with the Libyan people the violence and oppression that is happening and asking—amidst our fervent prayers—what we might be able to do.
A friend emailed me yesterday to ask what the process would look like for some of these Libyan refugees to come to the United States. After all, the U.S. is proud of its reputation as a haven for the persecuted and those seeking freedom. I thought it might serve as a good opportunity to explain how the refugee system works.
There are a few possible ways that someone fleeing Libya right now might be granted lawful permission to resettle in the United States. The most common possibilities for lawful migration, overall, are through being a close relative of a US citizen or being sponsored by an employer as a highly-skilled worker—but the U.S. does admit a number individuals each year precisely because they are refugees. Refugees, under U.S. and international law, are individuals who have fled persecution because of their race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In most cases, those individuals must have fled to a second country before they are considered refugees (there are about 10.5 million such refugees in the world—not including those of Palestinian origin—but another 14.4 million “internally displaced persons” who have fled their homes but not crossed a national border).
The United States takes in a limited number of refugees each year. That cap is set annually by the President: in recent years, the “ceiling” has been set at 80,000 refugees. Iraqis have filled the plurality of that quota in recent years, followed closely by Burmese refugees, but the U.S. refugee admissions and resettlement program—which is operated by the Department of State in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and non-profit voluntary agencies such as World Relief, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and others—resettles individuals from conflict-torn regions throughout the world.
The fact that a person is legitimately fleeing persecution for one of the reasons enumerated in law, though, is certainly not a guarantee that he or she will be resettled to the United States. With a maximum of 80,000 allowed admission—and more than 10 million refugees in the world (not including Palestinians or those internally displaced), the odds of being selected for resettlement to the U.S. (or to any developed country) are very small indeed (though, to give credit, the U.S. accepts far more refugees than any other single country). The reality for someone who has just fled from Libya into Tunisia (for example) is that, even if she is able to prove the legitimacy of her fear of persecution to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and be designated as a refugee, her chances of being resettled to the U.S. are minuscule. They will become even slimmer odds if Congress decides to cut funding for refugee programs by 45%, as has recently been proposed, as this would likely mean a severe reduction in the number of refugees that the U.S. would accept in the future. Instead, many refugees will live in camps for years and sometimes decades while they wait—hopefully—to one day be able to return to their home country in peace or to find some other durable solution. In some cases—such as many Burmese refugees in Myanmar or Iraqi refugees in Jordan—they live as undocumented immigrants in the country of first refuge.
For the fortunate few who are selected for resettlement to the U.S., they must then demonstrate that they are not “inadmissible.” Individuals could be found to be inadmissible under the Immigration & Nationality Act for having a criminal history or for a number of other grounds. One of the most common—if oddly counterintuitive—problems that refugees face is to be accused of having given “material support” to a terrorist organization.
It sounds more than reasonable that we should bar those who support terrorists from coming to the U.S.—no one wants to admit members of or donors to Al Qaeda as refugees—but the extremely broad definition of a “terrorist group” included in recent anti-terrorism legislation has kept out many individuals affiliated with groups that most would not consider terrorists, including people who fought alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam and who opposed dictators like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro with U.S. backing. If any of those fleeing Libya right now had ever been associated with any group calling for a forced overthrow of the brutal Qadaffi regime, they would likely be inadmissible for admission to the U.S. as refugees. Nearly any group—under the law any “two or more individuals, whether organized or not”—that seeks to use force to take down a government (no matter how repressive that government may be, even in the eyes of the U.S. government) is considered a terrorist group, and supporting them in any way would make a refugee ineligible for admission to the U.S.
Another possibility considered by some fleeing persecution, particularly if they had found it impossible to be selected for resettlement abroad, would be to try to show up in the U.S. in some other status—entering on a temporary visa, or illegally crossing a border if they could get that far—and then to apply for asylum.The process to apply for asylum, though, is very difficult; the burden of proof is on the applicant to prove that they have been persecuted for one of the reasons enumerated under the law, but many legitimate asylum-seekers simply do not have adequate evidence. After all, the government thugs who threaten the lives of those who dare to speak out against them do not usually do so in notarized letters. Furthermore, the process can be very arbitrary: analysis of asylum cases suggests that one’s odds of winning an asylum case may often have more to do with the adjudicator in charge of their case—and perhaps which side of the bed he woke up on—than with the merits of asylum-seeker’s claim. And, if you lose, you get deported, which can be a death sentence if the adjudicator made the wrong call and your fear of persecution in your country of origin really was legitimate. For that reason, some who make it to the U.S. would rather stay undocumented—in the shadows, but at least safe from the violence they feared in their country of origin—than file for asylum and risk losing.
It’s too soon to tell what the long-term situation of Libya and those who are fleeing the country now will be, but those of who want to live out Christ’s command to love our neighbors and to seek justice would do well to keep the country of Libya—and particularly those who have been forced to flee—in our prayers. Furthermore, we can be advocates to our legislators to ensure that the U.S. continues to be a place of refuge for those seeking freedom, sustaining funding for and improving the problems in our current system.