Chapter 26: From There to Here: The Journey of Refugee Families to the United States
- Learn from the national and global perspectives of refugee families and their journey.
- Recognizing that the world is constantly and rapidly changing.
- Recognizing that Global/national/international events can have an impact on individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
- Global implications dictate that we foster international relationships and opportunities to address international concerns, needs, problems, and actions to improve the well-being of not only U.S. citizens, but global citizens.
“We mostly lived in the jungle, because it was not safe to stay in the village. I had four children, each a year apart, I think the oldest was four. Ever since the Hmong started to flee the villages, if the communists found people in the villages they would kill them, so we hid in jungles most of the time… I did not have time to be afraid. Of course, I was scared the communists might find us, but I thought to myself that it did not really matter if I was afraid or not. I left it up to fate what was to become of us. There was no one to help us, and no safe place we could run to where we knew there would be help if we arrived, so we just kept running and hiding, all the while trying to decide if we should flee to Thailand.”
-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee
Hmong Women’s Action Team Oral History Project,
Minnesota Historical Society
Throughout history, families who are persecuted or fear persecution in their home countries have sought refuge in foreign countries. As Mai Vang Thao’s story demonstrates, these families face daily threats of violence and struggle to provide basic security or resources for their children. Families seek physical safety for themselves and their children by fleeing to a new country. The United States, which has been the final destination for many of these families who have been forced to flee, can offer them refugee or asylee status as a protection. Refugee or asylee families can live in the United States, with temporary assistance to get settled and to begin providing for themselves and their families.
A refugee is someone who was persecuted or fears persecution (on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion), has fled to another country, and has not participated in persecuting others. There is a special subcategory of refugees called asylum seekers: refugees and asylum seekers are different only in the process of relocation. Refugees have applied for and been granted refugee status before they leave for the United States. Asylum seekers meet all the criteria for refugee status but have already reached the United States. Although the process of arrival is different, the term refugee will be used in this text to refer to refugees and asylees unless otherwise noted.
The purpose of this chapter is to identify the paths taken by refugee families from persecution to relative safety. We will continue to follow in Mai Vang Thao’s footsteps to see one story that demonstrates the steps of fleeing persecution, family separation, admittance to the United States, and becoming accustomed to the new home.
26.2 Fleeing Persecution and Separation from Family
During those times everyone was afraid, and we taught the children very young to be afraid, so at the age of one or two, they already learned to be afraid and did not cry either.
-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee
Fleeing Persecution and Separation from Family
All refugees have experiences of loss and/or exposure to traumatic events, either personally or within their communities. Such experiences might include systematic discrimination and intimidation, civil war, ongoing military conflicts, forceful government expulsion from the country, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. Families living in these contexts often experience violence, or they hear about it in their communities and have reason to fear it. Families’ top priority is to find safety. However, even after they relocate, some families will experience the long-term effects from the traumatic stress they have experienced.
“[The children’s father] was hardly with us. He went off with the men and left us hiding in the jungles. In fact he had prepared that in the event that we could no longer stay, he would leave to Thailand, and the children and I, if captured by the communists, would stay behind since the communist soldiers would not kill us because we are only women and children.”
-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee
The conflicts and situations that cause people to flee their home countries often separate families. Families can become separated in the midst of a conflict or during the process of fleeing or migrating (families can also be separated during the resettlement process, see below). Even if parents and children are kept together through this arduous process, resettlement of an entire family unit (in many cultures, the family unit includes grandparents, aunts and uncles and their families) would rarely occur.
Separation from family members can be a source of guilt, loss, and added pressure. These losses of family ties and community support can often be characterized as ambiguous (Boss, 2006). When a family member dies, the loss is concrete, and the family can mourn. When family members are separated, there can be great ambiguity. Separated loved ones are physically absent but very present in the minds of their family members. Families have difficulty determining who is in the family, and what roles they play. This ambiguity can add to the stress of an already stressful migration. For example, youth separated from their parents during civil war wondered if their families had survived the fighting or had died. They described feelings of loneliness and intense depression. One child described, “The kids were most thinking – Are they alive or are they not alive?” (Luster, Qin, Bates, Johnson, & Rana, 2008, p. 449).
Wondering whether certain family members are alive or dead can cause individuals and families to become stuck with mixed feelings of hope, loss, guilt, and grief. These ambiguous losses compound the concrete losses of homes and family members. The impact of loss and traumatic events can be seen at both the individual and family level. In fact, one study found that the statistical relationships between traumatic events, grief, depression, and PTSD are stronger at the family level than they are at the individual level (Nickerson et al., 2011). Separated individuals must find ways to accept and live with the ambiguity. As one child said of his separation from his parents, “It happened. I did not have any control over it. I just think I wish it did not happen. But it did and I could not do anything about it” (Luster et al., 2008, p. 449).
When refugees are able to remain with close family members, it can ease the strains of relocation and coping with the traumas experienced in the home country. In a study of refugees in Norway, Lie, Lavik, and Laake (2001) found that the presence of close family in Norway had a positive impact on mental health symptoms, especially for those with higher exposure to traumatic events. McMichael, Gifford, and Correa-Velez (2011) similarly found that family connection is particularly important for youth early in the resettlement process.
26.3 Travel to Temporary Refuge
“When it became so unsafe we could not stay anymore. Some of the men who had returned [from Thailand] were my uncles, and they said that if we wanted to go with them to Thailand they would help us out, so that is why we decided to leave for Thailand… I still remember lots of things about living in camp, such as the sicknesses, not enough water to drink, the very hot weather, and not enough food…Everything about it was bad. We were living on the Thai people’s land, so they treated us any way they wanted. When the Hmong went to the flea market, they were beaten.”
-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee
In order to be a refugee, families must have traveled to a new country in order to escape persecution. Families generally cross the border into another country where they have heard that some aid is available. Charity or government organizations will set up refugee camps, which provide some shelter, medical care, and food.
Refugee camps are set up in response to a sudden and great need. Consequently, there are rarely enough resources for all of the families. Women are particularly at risk after a disaster. They may struggle to compete with men for resources (Viswanath et al., 2013). Post-disaster resources tend to have little sensitivity to needs of women, such as sanitary towels, diapers, or privacy or protection near restroom facilities (Viswanath et al., 2013; Fisher, 2010). Women experience increased sexual violence and domestic abuse following a disaster (Luft, 2008; Neumayer & Plumper, 2007; Anastario, Larrance, & Lawry, 2008; Viswanath et al., 2013).
Families can sometimes be separated during this stage of relocation. For example, children are sometimes sent ahead to another camp that is thought to be safer, leading to separation from their parents (Luster, Qin, Bates, Johnson, & Rana, 2008). This can lead to both vulnerability and feelings of loss.
26.4 Family Admittance to the United States
Once refugees have entered a new country, they can begin the road to refugee or asylee status in the United States. This process can be arduous and often takes over a year. The first step is a Refugee Status Determination or RSD. An authorized official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will determine if an individual is considered a refugee under international, regional, or national law. The official will then determine if the person should return to their home country, resettle in the neighboring country, or resettle in a third country (such as the United States). Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are ever resettled in a third country (UNHCR, 2015).
How do you define “refugee”?
UNHCR: The UNHCR held a Council in 1951 on the Status of Refugees, and they created a definition of refugee. Their definition is summarized in this chapter, but the full text is included on page 14 of the Council notes: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.
United States: The full definition of refugee adopted by the U.S. government comes from the UNHCR definition. You can see the U.S. definition in Section 101(a)(42) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.
United States Policies about Refugee Admittance
The UNHCR or an authorized NGO can refer a refugee for admission to the United States. Each year, the United States prioritizes particular groups to be eligible for refugee status. The current priorities are:
- Priority 1: Cases that are identified and referred to the program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States Embassy, or a designated non-governmental organization (NGO).
- Priority 2: Groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.
- Priority 3: Family reunification cases (spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons lawfully admitted to the United States as refugees or asylees or permanent residents (green card holders) or United States citizens who previously had refugee or asylum status; PRM, 2018).
The United States President sets a refugee ceiling each year that identifies the number of refugees who can be granted refuge in the country (see Refugee Policy: A Brief History for a brief history of United States Refugee policy). Limits for refugees allowed from particular world regions are also set. Asylees are not included in this number. These limits can be influenced by national security threats and political will. As an example, the number of admitted refugees across all refugee groups dropped from 68,925 to 26,788 following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 (Refugee Council, 2012). In the following years, the ceiling was consistently set between 70,000-85,000. The Trump Administration has cut the ceiling to 18,000, the lowest number since the creation of the refugee resettlement program. For the most up-to-date numbers of United States-admitted refugees and their countries of origin, see http://www.state.gov/j/prm/releases/statistics/
People who receive a referral for refugee status (not asylum seekers) work with a Resettlement Support Center to prepare their application. They then are interviewed by an officer from the United States Citizen and Immigration Services. Applying is free and applications can include a spouse, unmarried children, and occasionally other family members. All individuals approved as refugees are medically screened for infectious diseases, which could prevent entry to the United States. For a case example of this process, please see Ester’s Story.
In contrast, asylum seekers apply for asylum at a port of entry to the United States or apply within one year of arriving in the United States. There are two methods of seeking asylum: affirmative and defensive. In the affirmative asylum process, individuals file an application for asylum to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These individuals are free to live in the United States while their case is processed. In this past, a decision was required to be made within 180 days. However, processing time is currently estimated at 8 to 12 months (USCIS, 2019). During the application processing time or the first 180 days after filing the application (whichever is shorter), these individuals are not authorized to work. In the defensive asylum process, an immigrant who is in the process of being removed from the United States may request asylum as a form of relief. This process can happen when an immigrant 1) was apprehended in or entering the United States without documentation or 2) was denied asylum after applying to USCIS asylum officers. If an immigrant requests asylum as a defense against removal from the United States, they conduct removal proceedings in the immigrant court with the Executive Office for Immigration Review. An Immigration Judge hears these cases and makes a final decision about eligibility for asylum (American Immigration Council, 2018).
Many defensive asylum seekers are held in jails or detainment centers until they are paroled or a decision is made about asylum. They typically wear prison uniforms and are separated from opposite gendered family. This practice has been discouraged by the UNHCR and criticized by Human Rights First (Human Rights First, 2012). After an asylee declares a desire for asylum, he or she is interviewed to determine the credibility of the danger threat in their home country. If officials determine that there is a credible threat, there is still a process that must be followed before they are granted asylee status.
26.5 Entering the United States
Entering the United States
“In my opinion this country is even harder to adjust to, harder to live in because… because there are lots of rules and laws that bind us here. It is much harder to do things in this country. I came at an old age already, and learning English does not come easy. Everything is much harder for me.”
-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee
When refugees have been accepted for admittance to the United States, they are provided with a cultural orientation that can include information and education on basic English phrases, how to shake hands, interviewing for a job, using a western toilet, or the experience of flying on a plane. The International Organization for Migration provides a loan to refugees to cover their airplane ticket expenses from the United States government; they must repay this loan once they are resettled in the country.
Once they arrive, the Office of Refugee Resettlement assigns a voluntary agency (VOLAG) to offer them help (see “Key Organizations in Refugee Admissions and Integration” for a full description of agencies involved in refugee resettlement and policy). These VOLAGs often meet the refugee at the airport and arrange for housing and basic furnishings. They teach the refugees how to purchase groceries and use transportation, and connect them with resources for employment and education. These services are only available for 30-90 days. Across organizations and across states, there is no consistent process for these relocation/integration services, and availability of and applications for resources may vary. In some states, refugees are also eligible for cash assistance or medical assistance beyond this 90 day period (Refugee Council USA, 2019).
The following organizations enforce refugee policy and/or help with refugee integration:
- Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM): PRM is a bureau under the U.S. Department of State, and it works internationally to develop human solutions to displacement. They provide funding to and work with international organizations such as the U.N. that operate refugee camps. The director of PRM also serves as the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, and is responsible to the president to help develop policy relating to refugees, including admission ceilings and priorities.
- Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR): ORR is an office within the Department of Health and Human Services. It works with state governments and provides funding for voluntary agencies to facilitate economic and social support to refugees.
- Resettlement Support Centers (RSC): These international organizations help prepare files and store data for those applying for refugee status.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP): USCIS evaluates applications for refugee status, and the CBP screens refugees when they arrive.
- Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGs). Voluntary agencies, such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, have agreements with the State Department to provide reception and placement services for refugees. These agencies are funded through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. VOLAGs often contract with the ORR to provide resettlement-related services.
The VOLAG works with sponsoring relatives when applicable, and will sometimes find an individual, church, or other private groups that can assist with sponsorship if there is no sponsoring relative (Refugee Council USA, 2019). Refugees are eligible for all welfare benefits offered to citizens, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid.
True Thao, MSW, LICSW discusses economic challenges facing refugees and highlights observations in the Hmong community.
An Overwhelming Transition
Imagine waking up, and finding that everything in your life has changed. Your bed is a different size, shared with a different number of people, and in a different location. You wake up to a new sound, and it is a different temperature than you expect. You get up, and find that the only foods available are foreign to you. You try to go shopping, but you do not know how to navigate the transportation system. When you get there, the food all seem unfamiliar. You do not know how to pay for your food – the currency seems odd, and you also have a “money card” that you don’t understand how to use. You cannot talk to anyone well. You come home and someone has put a piece of paper on the door, which you cannot read and do not know how to have translated.
After relocation, families must navigate a new completely new culture. Everything is new. Often, a family faces changes in every aspect of life. Betancourt, Abdi, Ito, Lilienthal, Agalab, & Ellis (2014) documented major shifts in the experiences of Somali refugee families in Boston, including:
- These Somali families lost resources during the flight from their home country, and arrived to the United States in poverty regardless of their previous status.
- Parents lost employment status, as their previous employment credentials were not accepted in the United States.
- Children were exposed to drugs, violence, and gain activity in the neighborhoods in which they were located.
- Despite this strained economic standing, families felt responsible to send money back to extended family in Somalia.
- Parent-Child authority structures shifted. Children who were more fluent in English withheld information about their situations at school.
- Children faced discrimination based on their nationality. Families were separated from extended support (Betancourt et al., 2014).
These changes, combined with encountering a completely new culture, would shake any family’s coping skills. Unfortunately, the social supports available to refugees are difficult to access. Parents lack knowledge of how to navigate school systems and the health care system and are further isolated from services by lack of transportation and financial resources (Isik-Ercan, 2012; Navuluri et al., 2014). Mental health services are frequently not culturally sensitive or geared towards refugees (Shannon et al., 2014; Weine, 2011).
After arriving in the United States, many states require or recommend that refugees receive physical screening. In spite of the inherent exposure to potentially traumatic events, no states currently require mental health screenings. Some argue that screenings would be unethical without a referral infrastructure in place while others suggest that this is part of the process of addressing mental health concerns and working toward an infrastructure (for additional information about mental health among refugees, please see “Mental Health”). After conducting focus groups with refugees about mental health needs, Shannon and her colleagues argue that existing infrastructures could be trained to be responsive to refugee needs. “Health care providers might require more training about how to work collaboratively with new populations of refugees to assess the mental health effects of war” (2014, p. 13).
“Understanding and healing the symptoms of political oppression starts in the initial assessment with validating the ways that political trauma has rendered refugees ‘voiceless.’ Listening, documenting, and witnessing individual and community stories of exposure to human rights violations is credited as an essential component of restoring human dignity.”
-Shannon, Wieling, Simmelink, & Becher, 2014, p. 11.
Paul Orieny, Sr. Clinical Advisor for Mental Health at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), discusses the immense change families encounter after arriving in the United States (0:00-1:23).
Applying for Citizenship
Refugee status is granted for one year. After that time, refugees are required to apply to become a permanent resident alien, which provides them with the commonly known ‘green card’ (Refugee Council, 2014). Asylees are also eligible to apply for permanent resident alien status, although it is not required. A permanent resident alien is entitled to many of the same supports as citizens, including free public education, authorization to work in the United States, and travel documents to leave and return to the United States (Refugee Council USA, 2019). However, permanent resident aliens remain citizens of their home country, must maintain residence in the United States in order to maintain their status, must renew their status every 10 years, and cannot vote in federal elections (USCIS, 2019). After being a permanent resident for five years, refugees and asylees can apply for citizenship (Congressional Research Service, 2018).
Once resettled, refugees are able to apply to bring certain family members to join them in the United States if they were not able to come together. In order to bring additional family members to the United States, refugees must apply within two years of being granted refugee or asylee status. Refugees are able to apply to bring a spouse or children who are unmarried, under 21 years old, and conceived before leaving. Only anchor or “principal applicant” refugees are allowed to apply to bring family members. A principal applicant is generally the first refugee from a family to arrive in the United States. These principal applicants then apply to bring their immediate family members. However, the family members coming to join a principle refugee will not be able to apply to bring additional family members (Refugee Council USA, 2019). For example, a refugee could apply to bring his/her parents, his/her wife, and their children to the United States. After they arrive, the wife/husband is not eligible to apply to bring her/his parents. This means that some refugees will continue to feel separated and isolated from loved ones.
The process for family reunification is onerous. Refugees currently residing in their host country and their family members awaiting permission to join them must both work through cumbersome systems in their respective countries. The anchor or principal applicant in the United States must file an application with USCIS, and must provide proof of their relationship to the family members (through birth or marriage certificates, receipts of remittances sent home, photographs, etc.). The family members in the home country must then complete visa interviews, medical examinations, security background checks, and DNA testing (in the case of children).
At any stage along this process, the official can deny the application if they suspect fraud. If an adjudicator suspects fraud in the anchor refugee’s application, they can request stronger evidence of the relationship. If they remain unconvinced that the refugee is telling the truth, they can deny the application. If officers suspect fraud during the visa interview process, they will decline to issue the visa. They may also decline visas for health reasons or for past criminal behavior. There are waivers available, but not all potential refugees are aware of the waivers. Denials require a written rebuttal, the processing of which can take many months. If the rebuttal is approved, the family members in the home country must complete the interviews again. Many lack the education or the resources to tackle these processes. Refugees may not even be aware that they are eligible for reunification, as there is no systematic way of informing them. Currently, it is not clear how many family members eligible for reunification are able to complete the process and submit a full application (Haile, 2015).
There are supports available to help refugees through this process. The VOLAGs who assist with refugee resettlement generally have services available to assist in applications for family reunification. Local community organizations often also offer services to help prepare and complete applications. In Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Council of Churches hosts weekly information sessions about family reunification eligibility and the application process.
Support from Afar
In cases where families cannot be or choose not to be reunited, refugees still find ways to provide support to one another. Refugees may support family and friends through remittances or may spend time and money trying to locate and bring family members to the United States. In other cases, some may forgo long terms gains, such as job training or college, to be able to immediately help others (Betancourt et al., 2014). While this may cause emotional distress for some, it can also be the source of motivation to make the most of their opportunities. Transnational family connections help refugees retain a sense of identity within their culture and family (Lim, 2009).
Refugees are inherently survivors. They have experienced loss and traumatic events but have found ways to survive. For example, Somali refugee families in Boston used religious faith, healthy family communication, support networks, and peer talks to make new lives for themselves (Betancourt et al., 2014). Refugee youth take on new responsibilities after migration, including interpreting, providing financial support, and helping parents navigate services (Hynie, Guruge, & Shakya, 2012). The ways refugee individuals, families, and communities find and create support differ greatly. They draw on family and community resilience to find ways to continue to survive and, in many cases, thrive.
Refugee resilience is seen when they rebuild community networks in the cities to which they relocate. Others have formed organizations to protect and lobby for their communities, and others have been elected to public offices.
26.6 Future Directions in Policy and Refugee Family Support
Future Directions in Policy and Refugee Family Support
There are great needs, both internationally and nationally, for integrated support for refugee families. One international concern is the lack of protection for internally displaced persons. Those seeking a referral for refugee status complete the process from within the country to which they have fled. Internally displaced persons are not eligible for refugee status unless specifically identified by the President to be approved for refugee status. Additional steps may be necessary to protect those who face persecution but cannot, for whatever reason, flee to another country. In the United States, there is no unified approach to relocating and supporting refugees. Procedures vary by state and by VOLAG. President Obama created the White House Task Force on New Americans specifically to create unified plans to “create welcoming communities and fully integrating immigrants and refugees” (White House, 2014), and more work can be done in this area. Particularly given the Trump administration’s drastic reduction in the number of refugee admissions and associated funding cuts, refugee resettlement programs must focus on providing support effectively and efficiently. The Migration Policy Institute has recommended development of two-generation approaches to support families (MPI, 2018).
Paul Orieny, Sr. Clinical Advisor for Mental Health at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), discusses the importance of services when families arrive (6:40-10:23).
Refugee Stories: Policy in Practice
In this chapter, we have described the policies and processes that drive refugee resettlement. In order to have a complete picture, it is important to see how these policies and processes impact the real families who experience them. The case study highlighted throughout this chapter and the case study below provide examples of the opportunities and barriers they face during their transition.
“Ester, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was forcibly separated from five of her children during civil conflict in the early 2000s. She spent years in a refugee camp and was eventually resettled to North Carolina without her children. Upon arrival in the United States, she petitioned the USCIS to bring her children here. USCIS required that Esther provide birth certificates to prove her relationship to her children, all minors, but these documents did not exist. Incurring months of extra delay, Esther contacted relatives in the Congo who procured retroactive documentation of the relationship. USCIS then approved the petition and transferred the file to the United States Embassy in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital. In order to continue processing, the children had to travel to Kinshasa for visa interviews. But the children lived on the other side of the country, hundreds of miles away, and the journey to Kinshasa was extremely dangerous. Esther had no choice, however, and raised money from her church to fly them to the capital in a small plane…. On the day of their interview, they were turned away from the embassy because they lacked the requisite paperwork, which was in the United States with Esther. Rescheduling the interview took months. During this time, the youngest child, Florence, went missing. She is presumed kidnapped or dead, and did not accompany her siblings to the United States to be reunited with their mother. When the remaining four children received a new interview…. Their visas were approved – nearly two years after Esther filed the petition.”
-“Esther’s Story” describes a true story presented in Haile, 2015.
- Imagine you and your family were suddenly unsafe in the United States and feared for your life. What would you do? If you would leave the country, where would you go? How would you get there? How would you provide for your family in the meantime? How do you think you would be received there?
- Why should a country receive refugee families?
- What helps refugee families’ well-being during relocation?
- Where did Ester run into problems with the resettlement process?
- What examples of resilience to you see in Ester’s story? What is your reaction to the story’s ending?
- How might this have been avoided during the process of family reunification?
- Are there policy recommendations you can see?
Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees
- This website, created by the Minnesota Historical Society, is a database of oral histories of recent immigrants. They have stories from Asian Indian, Filipino, Hmong, Khmer, Latino, Somali and Tibetan refugees and immigrants.
- This is the website of the UN Refugee Agency. It has up-to-date news on refugee crises, needs, and resources.
USCIS United States Refugee Admissions Program Consultation & Worldwide Processing Priorities
- This website includes the current priorities for refugee admissions and has links to resources to apply for travel documents, family reunification, and permanent resident status.