What is the process for getting a green card or entry as a refugee?
January 31, 2017 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Conservatives make it sound like anybody can stroll into the US whenever they feel like it. Obviously, that isn't true.

I know that it took my former coworker many, many years to get his green card. (Sounds extreme already, right?) It was so difficult, in fact, that our company threw a party in his honor to celebrate.

So, what sort of vetting is currently done with immigrants and refugees? I tried googling but the results were either dense legalese or simply news of current events. Is there a TL;DR version?
posted by scottatdrake to Law & Government (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My local news had a short segment on the different Immigration Statuses. In the segment, the professor said getting your green card can take between 1 and 20 years. The reporter asks him how it happens and he suggests taking his 14 weeks course because the answer is so complicated. The text below the video links to this document from the OIS.
posted by soelo at 10:28 AM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Question 4 on this Vox list might help.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:29 AM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

This episode of This American Life is pretty illuminating. "Abdi and the Golden Ticket" is about a Somalian refugee in Kenya, going through the US green card process.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:30 AM on January 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

As an immigrant that married a US citizen it took me a year. I can list all the steps I went through if you are interested in non refugee immigrants.
posted by wwax at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2017

I went from a H1-B to a green card.

a) you have to get a H1-B which involves getting a job in the US, winning the H1-B lottery (which varies from year to year based on demand) then filing a bunch of paperwork and being interviewed by USCIS. Thankfully much of this is done by the employer but they have to try to prove that there's no US citizen available for the job. How true this is varies but it is technically a requirement.

b) once you have that and are in the US you can file for a green card. (I got an E2 or E3, I forget. Definitely not an E1) There's more paperwork (and you must state you're not a member of the nazi party among other things), a medical exam and then you get in line

c) the line varies based on your country of origin - the State Dept visa bulletin shows when they're processing applications from (it seems backwards but there it is). So if you're not from a listed country and you're trying for an E2, hey, they'll process it right away. If you're in the F3 (married sons and daughters of US citizens) category for family-sponsored green cards then today they're processing applications from mid-2005. Unless you're from Mexico or the Phillipines in which case they're currently processing applications from 1995. (yes, that's correct, from 20+ years ago)

d) once you get your application processed you get fingerprinted and then hey, you have a green card. Go get your SSN, etc.

e) don't leave. Your abandon your green card if you're away for more than a year continuously so, for example, my son, who left the US to attend university elsewhere, need to get a two-year re-entry permit so he's not considered to have abandoned his residency. More forms, more $$, another set of fingerprints.

And don't lose your green card because you need to have it on you at all times and it costs $500 to replace.
posted by GuyZero at 10:57 AM on January 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

I will add that for a lot of people the waiting for a green card is a side-effect of annual caps on the applicant category they're in. It's not like it's 10 years of continuous investigation.
posted by GuyZero at 12:35 PM on January 31, 2017

I am a US citizen married to a foreign national. We just got his green card and moved to the US after living overseas together for about four years. He is white, cis, hetero, employable, financially stable, Christian, from an English-speaking country we're friends with, we have a kid together, no criminal history on either of our parts, etc. We filed the initial paperwork in January and he finally got his green card approved in October. We had a hiccup where his birth certificate was apparently not the right long form one from his country of birth so we initially got a rejection and request for the new certificate, which delayed us like 4-6 weeks. This was all also consular filing outside the US, which differs a bit to filing from inside the US.

It was not easy. It was stressful. It was expensive (esp given a mandatory medical exam in a city one flight away as well as a mandatory in person interview in a different city a separate flight away). I had to dig up years of records and tax returns. He had to get a multi hour medical exam involving STD texts and chest x-rays (lol sorry if you're pregnant and want to come here). I had to move over to the US with our toddler without him - he could only join me once I had re-established US domicile with a job and residence.

The guy in line in front of him at the consulate for his interview had the consular agent open the sealed medical exam records, discover that the doc forgot to check one box or initial something or something like that, and sent the guy away to redo his several hundred dollar medical exam with the ensuing weeks of delay for the results and the interview scheduling. Little things can fuck it all up and set you back months.

My totally right wing family were astounded at the process and our difficulties and said things like "but he's the kind of immigrant we do want! Why do they make it so hard!" so take that as you will.

I got a (fixed term weird circumstance) spouse visa when we lived in the UK and a temp spouse visa converting to permanent residency in Australia. Both were easier and went way smoother. My initial Australian visa did take eight months, though.
posted by olinerd at 1:18 PM on January 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Let me add that with regards to the medical exam that the doctor who did mine basically did visa medical screenings full-time - our local medical group is large enough and there are plenty of immigrants here that they have 2 or 3 full-time doctors doing nothing but green card and visa-related medical exams. And that's great because as oilnerd points out, the paperwork is complex and if you've never done one you'll probably miss something.
posted by GuyZero at 1:22 PM on January 31, 2017

Also anyone applying for a green card has to submit not only the medical exam, but their military and criminal records from their home country, translated. Acquiring those records can be a huge pain.
posted by k8t at 3:30 PM on January 31, 2017

Oh, one other thing - after marrying a foreigner and telling people about our green card woes, I have run into so, SO many Americans who are absolutely convinced that we automatically acquire each other's citizenship upon marriage. I have had to disabuse many, many people of this notion. I think in WWII there was a War Brides Act or something that made this true for US citizens bringing back foreign brides, but absolutely everyone seems to be convinced this is still the case today. So I think it's highly likely that people's misunderstanding of how easy it is to immigrate to the US is tied to this cultural mythology of bringing home a foreign spouse who gets automatic citizenship.
posted by olinerd at 5:14 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Refugees specifically - I just typed the following up for a friend whose father was a trump supporter trying to defend the ban, and she wanted some counterarguments (I work for the IRC). I got this from an infographic on Obama's web site.

The applicant contacts the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in their current country of residence. They must present all identification paperwork that they possess. The UNHCR records this, and also records their name, current address, birthday, and place of birth. In the case of Syrians and other refugees from Middle Eastern nations, it collects a biometric ID scan (it scans their iris). The UNHCR then condicts an interview with them to confirm that they are indeed a refugee who is indeed fleeing a condition of hardship. It then re-verifies all the information from the interview, and the original information presented (name, current address, birthdate, etc.), and does an assessment to ascertain whether they would be strong candidates for resettlement – i.e., whether they would be likely to assimilate into the US, whether they have existing family members in the US that can help them assimilate, whether they may be secretly interested in fomenting rebellion, etc.

Only 1% of applicants pass this initial screening.

The ones who pass this initial screening are referred to a federally-funded resettlement support center (still located in their country of origin). They also collect copies of identification documents and conducts a biographic security check.

The biographic security check is as follows:

1. The National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department all screen the candidate, looking for outstanding warrants, connections to known terrorists or criminals, or any other information indicating a security risk.
2. In the case of Syrian cases, the Department of Homeland Security conducts a second check of this same information in collaboration with the USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate to screen out any falsified data.

This biographic security check is repeated all over again any time they discover a previously unstated address or phone number, an alternate spelling of the name, etc.

Then the Department of Homeland Security collaborates with USCIS officers to conduct yet more screening interviews. The USCIS officers have been specially trained to screen out security risks. Then the USCIS and DHS collect the applicant’s fingerprints and does a fingerprint check. If the interviews or the fingerprints reveal more information, the applicant is sent back to the biographic security check process yet again.

Then the applicant’s fingerprints are screened against the FBI’s records, the DHS’s records, and the US Department of Defense’s records. The DHS’s database contains watch-list information, and the US Department of Defense contains records which were captured in Iraq.

If there are still security concerns at this stage, the applicant is rejected. Otherwise, the process continues.

Applicants then undergo a medical check. For cases where an applicant has a communicable, but treatable, disease, they are removed from the system and provided medical treatment, and are only released when cured. For cases where they are deemed too ill or infirm, they are rejected.

After the medical check, the applicants are given cultural orientation classes, still in their current country of residence. In these classes, applicants are instructed on the exact nature of the resettlement process, the exact role of the resettlement agency, how to begin to obtain housing in the United States, how to apply for a job in the United States, the different modes of travel in the United States, the education system in the United States, health and hygiene, money management, the rights and responsibilities of a United States Citizen, and other cultural adjustment topics. The exact topics vary depending on the group receiving instruction (for instance, a class of mostly urban professionals would not be told about the agriculture industry in the United States).

While the applicant is receiving training, a US-based non-government organization is ascertaining the best resettlement location, taking into consideration factors like the likelihood of job placement, whether the applicant has family in a certain area, whether there is an existing population of immigrants from the applicant’s home country, etc.

Throughout this period of cultural classes and location scouting, the security organizations have been continuing spot-checks against terrorist databases. Once the applicant has completed training and a location is chosen and there are still no security flags, they continue the process.

The International Center for Migration books their travel. At this stage, the US Customs and Border Protection conducts its own screening of the applicant, as does the Transportation Security Administration. Only applicants who still have no security flags are permitted to board their planes and come to the US.

This full process takes two years. The applicant must also agree to apply for a green card within their first year in the US, which opens them up to yet more screening, background checks, etc.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:35 PM on January 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

Taken wholecloth from this post on facebook:

A more in-depth companion to that refugee resettlement comic: this is copied and pasted (with permission) from a friend who is a resettlement expert for the UNHCR:

"A few people have asked me for some information on refugee resettlement to share with friends who agree with what Trump is trying to do. Here is some simplified background. Feel free to copy and paste (sharing won't work), though please take out my name.

For a person to be resettled to the US, they have to:

- flee their home country for another country, and in that new country, prove to the government or UN that they are a refugee in accordance with international law, and are not excludable (have not been involved in certain crimes, with certain organizations, etc). It isn't easy to be granted refugee status.

- be one of the <1>
- the process of getting refugee status and being identified for resettlement usually takes years.

- be interviewed for resettlement - usually several times. This requires having their reasons for flight given and examined in detail, as well as everything about their situation in the country of asylum. Security checks may be done again, to ensure they aren't excludable. Exclusion tests can take a year. Have their file reviewed, etc.

- have their resettlement case written up

- have their resettlement case reviewed, often by different staff in different offices

- this process can take years too. I worked on resettlement cases that had been in the process for 12 years.

- have a country identified for them by the UN. The refugee does not get to choose to be resettled, and they do not get to choose the country to which they are submitted (one of the rare instances in which their desire may be taken into account is if they have immediate family members already in a certain country). The country will be selected for them because of quotas etc. So, if it happens to be the US, since the US has some places and is taking people of that profile (eg from that country) at that time:

- the person's case will be referred to the US

- they wait for their case to be reviewed by the US

- they wait to be interviewed by the US

- if accepted, they wait for security clearance

- they wait for medical clearance and so on

- this part of the process often takes at least two years. The security checks are more exhaustive than for any other visitors for the US.

So, as an example of some cases affected by what Trump is trying to do (I won't give many details for confidentiality reasons):

- several thousand (Muslim) refugees in a camp I worked in fled war in their country. They all lost family members, and most of the women were raped.

- they applied for and received refugee status in the country to which they fled.

- it seemed like things might quieten down in their country, so they weren't considered for resettlement, given that <1>
- they still weren't able to go home as, even though there wasn't full-on war, their homes had all been taken over by a rival clan who threatened them if they returned

- war broke out in their country again; more people fled, and a second and third camp were set up

- they began to be considered for resettlement

- approx 100 out of several thousand were identified as being the most vulnerable (severely ill, disabled, etc)

- there were serious security issues, and all resettlement activities were put on hold (as the camp was very remote and resettlement staff could not be based there, and would have to fly in from another country)

- the problems abated and resettlement was considered again

- I went to interview the approx 100 identified people

- I completed their cases, and waited for birth and marriage certificates to be obtained, medical reports to be written (all of this takes time and is difficult and, in the case of the medical reports, can be expensive)

- the cases were reviewed and finalized and we waited for a resettlement country to agree to interview them

- one of the people I interviewed died as so much time passed

- from the time the several thousand people fled the original war, until now, when the approx 100 people are still waiting to be resettled, and now won't be accepted to the US, 15 years have passed. Children have been born and grown up in a squalid camp, and many of the people have died.

I have so many stories like this. Thousands and thousands of people who fled 15+ years ago, only 1% of whom are even in the resettlement process, who Trump now wants to refuse entry to the US.

SO, people say that potential terrorists come in through refugee resettlement, and that's why it has to be closed down. Their logic therefore is that if you were a potential terrorist, the easiest way to achieve your aims would be to be persecuted, flee your home country, become one of the 1% most vulnerable to flee (eg by acquiring a potentially fatal illness that can't be treated in your asylum country), undergo years of interviews while living in a squalid camp, lose family members, undergo exhaustive security checks, rely on chance because you can't choose to be resettled, and you can't choose the country you are resettled to, arrive in the resettlement country after years if you're lucky, and while you're planning your activities, live in poverty while simultaneously paying back the cost of your flight (resettled refugees have to pay for their flight to the US).

A terrorist organization would choose you - someone who has been subjected to years of interviews and investigations and security checks - to carry out their work, rather than someone who could simply enter the US without any checks on a visa waiver, or someone who is already in the US. Seems logical, right?

Of course it isn't. It's absurd. No one can make any remotely rational argument against receiving resettled refugees on security grounds. And statistics bear this out. Since there is no security argument (and, incidentally, there is no financial argument - resettled refugees get hardly anything after they arrive), the only reasons for agreeing with clamping down on the refugee resettlement program are prejudice and total lack of compassion and humanity."
posted by itesser at 7:52 PM on January 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

A large chunk of one of the bullet points got taken out due to html syntax. It should read:

- be one of the less than 1% most vulnerable refugees using a list of criteria - the same criteria used worldwide. For example, one criterion is medical needs that cannot be addressed in the asylum country (the country to which the refugee fled), and if not treated, will lead to death or serious impairment (eg total paralysis - but in practice this criterion is usually applied if the person is going to actually die in the absence of treatment). Using this criterion requires medical reports, tests, etc, that prove that the person really is going to die in the absence of treatment, that the treatment really isn't available in the country, etc. These medical reports are reviewed to check that the correct tests have been done to make the diagnosis and so on. The UN has medical officers who can review the medical reports, and resettlement staff has some training in checking these too.
posted by itesser at 7:56 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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