The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Highlights of the Resettlement Process and Tips for Employers

November 25, 2015 | By

The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th have heightened Americans’ concern over security as President Obama has pledged to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing that troubled, violent, and oppressive land.   A number of states have declared that they will refuse to accept for resettlement any Syrian admitted to the U.S. as a refugee, claiming that the security interests of their citizens must be their first priority, and expressing doubt in the federal government’s ability to properly screen refugees against security threats.  For its part, The House of Representatives has passed H.R. 4038, The American Security Against Foreign Enemies SAFE Act, a bill that would expand background checks on Iraqi and Syrian refugees hoping to enter the United States, and would require the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct its own background checks in addition to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS). Any refugee would be prohibited from entry until the FBI certifies that they pose no security threat. Refugees would only be admitted with the unanimous agreement of the FBI, DHS, and Director of National Intelligence.  The House voted on November 19th and easily won 289-137 with almost all Republicans and 47 Democrats voting in favor. The President has said he would veto the bill if it also passes the Senate.

Events in Paris and subsequent legal action – and much political posturing from across the spectrum of presidential candidates – raises several question: What is a refugee?  How does a refugee enter the United States?  And, for HRLegalist readers, may refugees work legally?

What is a Refugee?

Under United States law, a refugee is someone who:

  • Is located outside of the United States;
  • Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States;
  • Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group;
  • Is not firmly resettled in another country; and
  • Is admissible to the United States.

A refugee does not include anyone who ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The Refugee Process

For a person to be classified as a “refugee” he or she must receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).  If  a referral is granted then the person receives help in completing the application and then is interviewed abroad by an officer of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS),  who determines whether the person is eligible for refugee resettlement.   An applicant’s family is also included in the application and, if approved, all receive refugee status and the benefits of resettlement.  “Family” includes one’s spouse and children under 21 years of age. Along with the application for refugee status, individuals also apply for an Employment Authorization Document, which will allow them to work legally once they arrive in the U.S.

Coming to the United States

If a person is approved as a refugee, he or she receives a medical exam, a cultural orientation, help with travel plans, and a loan for travel to the United States. After arrival, refugees are eligible for medical and cash assistance, a process under the jurisdiction of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.   If a refugee is admitted to the U.S. alone, but later wishes family members who are abroad to join him or her, then he or she must file Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition within two years of arrival to the United States, unless there are humanitarian reasons to excuse this deadline.

Working in the United States

Upon being admitted to the United States at a Port of Entry, refugees receive a form I-94 Arrival and Departure Record (this form is issued, usually electronically, to all persons entering the United States and is how DHS keeps track of who is coming and going).   Refugees receive an I-94 with an RE refugee admission stamp.   A government issued ID and the I-94 card can be presented to an employer as evidence of employment authorization, until the issuance of an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).  Refugees may also use a government issued ID and the I-94 or EAD to obtain a Social Security Number.

We routinely get questions from employers about appropriate documentation for purposes of completing the Form I-9. If in doubt, consult the USCIS website for a list and images of acceptable documents for the I-9.  And remember:  by law employers must examine the documentation an employee presents to complete Section 2 of Form I-9. You are not required to be document experts. You must accept documents that reasonably appear to be genuine and to relate to the person presenting them.   Despite the vast amounts of media attention the crisis in Syria is getting, refugees are relatively few, so you may not be familiar with an I-94 card that has an RE refugee admission stamp.  Nonetheless, it is important that if the document appears facially valid, it must be accepted.  Moreover, rejecting a refugee I-94, or asking questions such as, “what does this RE mean?” could run afoul of the law which forbids national origin discrimination.  Therefore, it is always best to conduct due diligence in completing your I-9s and when in doubt consult legal counsel.

Filing for a Permanent Residency (Green Card)

Once a person is admitted as a refugee, he or she must apply for permanent residence within one year after coming to the United States by submitting the Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or to Adjust Status. There is no fee for refugees to file the Form I-485. In addition, refugees do not have to pay for fingerprinting/biometrics fees.   A “green card” signifying permanent residence allows the bearer to travel freely in and out of the country and authorizes him or her to work for any employer.  Employers should be careful to reverify an employee’s Form I-9 once the employee receives his or her green card.   Also, and this is important:  Green Card holders’ I-9s DO NOT NEED TO BE REVERIFIED.  Even though the green card itself expires every ten years, the underlying status of permanent residence does not. Thus, for I-9 purposes, permanent residence is effectively the same as citizenship and employers should not ask green card holders to present a new green card once the old one has expired and been reissued.


The hype concerning Syrian refugees will likely continue. Americans have an obvious and perfectly understandable desire for protection of our national security and of the freedoms we are granted by our Constitution.  With that said, the process of refugee resettlement will likely continue, even if delayed by enhanced security measures.  From the arrival of the first Native peoples across the ice-bridge of the Bering Sea, Leif Ericson and other early explorers, to the Pilgrims and the settlers in Virginia, the forced migration of African slaves, illegal entrants across the Rio Grande, and more recent arrivals from the war torn Middle East, we continue to be a nation of immigrants and, despite much rhetoric, Lady Liberty- even if slightly tired and world weary – continues to proclaim, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Employers have their part to play in this process, and it is well worth being mindful that eventually nearly all the “homeless and tempest tossed” who arrive at our “teeming shores” will eventually join the payroll, so it is important to know the facts and be prepared.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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