The Refugee Resettlement Process

Written by Rachel Pierce, Administrative Assistant

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus (from the poem, “The New Collossus”, found at Ellis island, New York).

For hundreds of years the United States has been the destination of foreigners looking for safe refuge from their unjust government. While the United States was founded by settlers immigrating from England seeking religious freedom, and countless others immigrated from around the world to the United States in the 1800’s looking for better opportunities. Despite the historical role the U.S. played in being a home for refugees, it wasn't until after the end of WWII that a formal refugee resettlement process was adopted.

“The U.S. admitted more than 250,000 displaced Europeans following World War II, after which the U.S. Congress enacted the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowing an additional 400,000 European refugees to resettle in the U.S.This legislation was followed by later laws admitting refugees from Communist countries such as China, Cuba, Hungary, Korea, Poland and Yugoslavia. The modern refugee resettlement program traces its roots to the 1975 admission of over 100,000 Southeast Asian refugees under an ad hoc resettlement program called the Refugee Task Force. In 1980, Congress formalized the refugee resettlement program in the Refugee Act of 1980, which included the UN criteria for refugee status and set the legal basis for the Refugee Admissions Program. Today this program is operated by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and offices in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”

(From BRYCS, Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services)

Many of us at Mission Adelante have met the refugee’s who have lived in the camps, or in neighboring countries; seeking refuge from their oppressive homeland.  Some of the children and youth that we serve in our Bhutanese ministry program have grown up in refugee camps; with limited resources, and trauma caused from being raised in the refugee camp environment.  

I have a friend who left his home country of Burma (Myanmar) because of religious oppression, he fled to Malaysia seeking refuge.  He didn’t have any documents proving his citizenship in Malaysia. When police came to the restaurant where he worked asking for proof of citizenship, he had to pay a bribe to the police so that he wouldn’t be arrested and sent back to Burma.  

One of our Bhutanese youth, who resettled in the United States a couple of years ago, tells stories of using plastic bags and other trash to make a soccer ball so that he and his friends in the refugee camp would have something to play with.   

Our staff and volunteers could tell so many more stories that we have heard from our refugee friends about living in the camps, villages, and neighboring countries.  Our refugee friends could tell you about the variety of emotions they have felt. From the happiness they felt leaving their oppressive homeland; but at the same time,  the deep sadness they had of leaving their home, family, and friends. The fear and apprehension of the unknown of living in a refugee camp, the anxiety concerning the process of being considered for resettlement in the United States.  The excitement of being chosen to go to the United States, but at the same time feeling regret for leaving family behind; unsure if they would ever see their loved ones again.  

“Today’s refugee will live in a camp for 17 years on average, in limbo until he or she can safely return home or find refuge in another country. Resettlement is a lifesaving and lasting solution for those with nowhere else to turn. It also benefits the countries that welcome them – and yet it is a chance afforded to a mere one percent of refugees worldwide.” (IRC, International Rescue Committee)

Another misconception in our society concerns the refugee resettlement process.  There has been a lot of talk in the media concerning this subject.  There have also been a lot of questions from local and federal government officials about the safety of the refugee screening process.  

At Mission Adelante we seek the facts from trusted sources at resettlement agencies who are on the front lines of the process. We want to share this information with our readers, so that you can have a better understanding of the process. Also, we know from our friends that have gone through the process, how stringent of a process it is.  

Misconception: The refugee screening process isn’t rigorous enough.

Fact: The hardest way to come to the U.S. is as a refugee.

“Refugees are vetted more intensively than any other group seeking to enter the U.S. All those seeking to come here must first be registered by the United Nations refugee agency, which identifies the families most in need. The U.S. then hand-selects every person who is admitted. Security screenings are intense and led by U.S. government authorities, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and multiple security agencies. The process typically takes up to 18 months and is followed by further security checks after refugees arrive in the states.” (IRC, International Rescue Committee)”.

“There are many ways to come to the United States,” says David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, which has resettled more than 160,000 refugees from 50 countries over the past 40 years. “Comparatively, the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult, short of swimming the Atlantic.”


Here is the process that a refugee must go through to be resettled in the United States.

Seeking Legal Refugee Status

"In order to receive official refugee status in a country of asylum, an individual has to have left his or her home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group affiliation, or political opinion.  The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is usually responsible for awarding legal refugee status.  In addition, UNHCR often offers refugees protection, assistance, and alternative legal and travel documents."

Seeking Resettlement

"UNHCR refers only about 1 percent of all refugees for resettlement in a third country.  Only when all efforts to either help refugees return home or settle permanently in the country of asylum have failed does third country resettlement become the option of last resort.  The following countries have resettlement programs: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.  Other countries accept individual refugees on an ad hoc basis.  Family ties, trade skills, professional abilities, language facility, and various other factors are considered by UNHCR when matching a refugee with a resettlement country."

Referral to the USRP

"Only refugees who have been referred by UNHCR or by the U.S. embassy in the country of asylum are eligible for the USRP.  Usually, a family is referred together as a single group.  The Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) oversees this program.  The State Department develops application criteria, refugee admission ceilings, and presents eligible cases to a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), for  adjudication. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) describes the process of application for admission to the United States as a refugee in 9 FAM Part IV Appendix O."


"Refugees who meet the criteria for application to the USRP are interviewed by a USCIS officer who travels to the country of asylum.  The U.S. Department of State contracts resettlement and/or nongovernmental organizations to assist refugees who may need help preparing their resettlement application forms.  The application typically consists of USCIS Form I-590, family tree, and biographical information.  The USCIS officer decides whether the applicant is a refugee as defined under U.S. law.  An individual’s designation as a refugee by UNHCR does not guarantee admission to the USRP."


"Refugees whose applications for U.S. resettlement receive USCIS approval are matched with an American resettlement organization that will facilitate their resettlement to the United States.  Most of these nonprofit organizations rely on professional and volunteer staff to assist refugees in the resettlement process.  If rejected, the applicant has thirty days to file a motion to reconsider the denial with the nearest USCIS district office.  Generally, a motion is considered only if it contains new information not available at the original interview."

Being Matched with an American Resettlement Organization

"Detailed information on all refugees approved for resettlement in the United States is sent to the Refugee Data Center (RDC) in New York.  RDC matches refugees with one of eleven voluntary agencies that provide reception and placement services for refugees coming to the United States."

Pre-travel Activities

"In order to ensure that a refugee understands that everyone living in America is expected to be self-sufficient and that no refugee should be an undue burden to American society, he or she must complete several additional steps before traveling to the United States.  These activities are undertaken concurrently and can take from 2 months to 2 years to complete:"

Assurance process

"The American resettlement organization must “assure” the Department of State that it is prepared to receive each matched refugee.  This “assurance” is a written guarantee that various basic services will be provided to the refugee and any accompanying family members in the initial resettlement phase.  At this time, the resettlement organization determines where in the United States the refugee will be resettled based on the availability of housing, employment, needed services, readiness of host community, and a variety of other factors.  However, if a refugee has a relative in the United States, every effort is made to resettle the refugee near that relative.  Refugees do not have to have U.S. sponsors to be resettled in the United States."

  • Medical clearance: Prior to coming to the United States, all refugees are medically screened by a healthcare professional working for the U.S. government.  The screening identifies medical conditions that require follow-up or constitute a public health concern.  A few serious conditions may render a refugee ineligible for entry into the United States; however, a waiver may be available.  After being “medically cleared,” a refugee must enter the United States within one year.
  • Security clearance: All refugees must undergo a security clearance procedure prior to coming to the United States.  The level of clearance needed depends on the refugee’s country of origin.  In most cases, the refugee’s name is checked against the FBI’s database of known terrorists and undesirables, as well as the State Department’s database of people who have been denied visas to enter the United States in the past.
  • Cultural orientation: All refugees receive some form of cultural orientation prior to coming to the United States.  Most programs emphasize the importance of self-sufficiency in American society, as well as what to expect in the initial resettlement phase.  Classes range in length from three hours to several days.

Travel to the United States

"The International Organization for Migration (IOM) arranges air travel for most U.S.-bound refugees.  Before a refugee leaves the country of asylum, he or she signs a promissory note and agrees to repay the U.S. government for travel costs. Upon receiving necessary travel details from IOM, the American resettlement organization makes arrangements for the refugee’s arrival."

United States Arrival and Reception

"After meeting, welcoming, and assisting the refugee at the airport, the resettlement organization begins the process of helping the refugee become settled in his or her new community."

(From the USCRI, United States Center for Refugees and Immigrants)

Most of us born in the United States have at least one ancestor that was born in another country.  Our ancestors were welcomed into the United States.  We need to remember our past and welcome the stranger just as our ancestors were welcomed.  As Christ followers we are reminded over and over again in the Bible of the commands from God to welcome the stranger.   In most places in the Bible when God commands us to love and help the orphan and the widow, He also commands us to love and help the foreigner among us.  In Leviticus 19:34 God reminds the Israelites, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” This is a reminder we all should consider, our ancestors were outsiders at one time, and we should love, help, and welcome the outsider among us.

Important Dates:

  • Have you ever wondered what goes on at Mission Adelante during a typical program night?  Latino Observation Nights - November 3 & 10; 6:30 - 8:30 pm.  Bhutanese Observation Night - November 8; 6:30 - 8:30 pm. 22 S 18th St Kansas City, Kansas 66102.