|Holly Johnson, left, director of Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees, reviews her notes before answering questions from a joint committee of the State Legislature about Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees. To her right, Jennifer Murphy, director of the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, talks with Bill Sinclair, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. Photo by Theresa Laurence
Since its founding in 1962, Catholic Charities of Tennessee has assisted refugees and asylum seekers and helped them assimilate to American culture and the local community.
Today, the plight of refugees has moved to center stage as people fleeing violence and persecution in the Middle East flood into Europe. Meanwhile, the millions of refugees around the world wait and hope to be resettled in a more stable and secure country. Those who work with refugees in Tennessee are taking steps to clear up misconceptions about who refugees are and the rigorous process they must undergo to reach the United States.
“This is my 41st year on the job and I’ve never seen so much misinformation circulating about refugees,” said Bill Sinclair, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. He first joined the organization more than 40 years ago to help launch a more formalized refugee resettlement program, welcoming refugees from Southeast Asia to Middle Tennessee.
The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into U.S.
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While millions of refugees are fleeing their home countries fearful for their own lives, Americans have become more afraid of refugees. That fear stems from not understanding the screening and resettlement process, which can be long and complicated, Sinclair said. Once people learn the facts, “it dispels the myth” that refugees are here to cause harm, he added. “People have stereotyped anyone from the Middle East as a bad guy, and that’s not true.”
“The misinformation is much louder than the facts right now,” said Holly Johnson, director of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. “The individual families who are struggling are getting lost in all this noise.”
Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, late last year left Americans on high alert, and some Tennessee state legislators reacted by calling for swift and harsh action against refugees. Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) proposed that the National Guard round up all Syrian refugees and move them out of state; Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) urged Gov. Bill Haslam to sue the federal government so Tennessee could block future refugees from settling in the state.
About 58,000 refugees live in Tennessee, which is less than 1 percent of the state’s population; only 30 Syrian refugees were resettled in the entire state last year. Almost all refugees that come to Tennessee are resettled in the four major cities: Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
On Dec. 9, legislators held a joint state and local government committee hearing focused on refugees. Johnson, who was among those called to testify before the committee, saw it as an opportunity to educate lawmakers about refugees and how they are resettled in the state. She also spoke about the role of her office, Tennessee Office for Refugees, its function and its relationship with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and with local resettlement agencies like the Catholic Charities Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The refugee program “is the longest and hardest way to come to the U.S.,” Johnson told the committee hearing.
Refugees must undergo a rigorous screening process that takes at least 18 months. Due to the high number of refugees worldwide, it is not uncommon for them to live in camps for a decade or more while they await one of the few spots available for resettlement. Less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled.
Refugees are defined as individuals who have had to leave their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. They are targeted because of their religious or political beliefs, or membership in a particular social class.
“It’s hard to remember sometimes how good we have it – fear for your life is a daily fear for many in countries around the world,” Johnson said.
The process for a refugee to come to the United States begins after a refugee reports to a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If a refugee is seeking entry into the U.S., they will undergo vetting from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the State Department. This involves extensive interviews and background checks, with a particular focus on any signs of radicalization or connection with a terrorist group, which would immediately disqualify that person from entry into the U.S.
While many people have concerns about the screening process – that it can’t be adequately done in a country like Syria where the information infrastructure is in shambles – “those who do the job of vetting are used to checking into people who don’t have all their documents in a nice, neat folder,” Johnson said. “I understand that people are scared, but they should not be scared of refugees, because the process works well.”
There have been no instances of terror attacks by refugees carried out on American soil; the San Bernardino or Chattanooga shooters did not come to the U.S. as refugees, neither did the Boston Marathon bombers, Johnson noted.
If a refugee meets all the guidelines and is chosen to resettle in the U.S., officials at the U.S. State Department, with input from non-government organizations that work with refugees, determine where new refugee arrivals will live. They then notify the local resettlement agency, such as Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office, which will meet them at the airport, help them move into a new apartment, and provide the necessary cultural orientation.
The Tennessee Office for Refugees, which Johnson directs, is a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, designated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to administer the state refugee resettlement program. Catholic Charities took over the job of administering Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program in 2008 after state officials determined they did not have the administrative capacity to run it. “At that time Catholic Charities created a new office to have separation from the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement office,” Johnson said.
The local Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office acts as a subcontractor of the TOR, and receives federal grant money from them to offer assistance and run programming to help refugees quickly achieve self-sufficiency. The TOR also disburses federal grant money to other refugee resettlement agencies in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Throughout the Dec. 9 hearing, legislators asked questions about federal and state authority in the refugee resettlement process. There was some discussion about whether the state would attempt to re-take control of the refugee resettlement program; some legislators felt they were not receiving enough communication from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement or the Tennessee Office for Refugees. Johnson and Sinclair said they wanted to clear up any miscommunication as soon as possible. “We welcome questions and we want to be transparent,” Sinclair said.
At the Dec. 9 hearing, legislators had questions about how much refugees cost the state by accessing TennCare and other services. Johnson noted that most refugees are self-sufficient within eight months, working and making enough money where they would not qualify for government safety net programs.
In 2013, state legislators called for a fiscal review to determine the economic impact of refugees, and the study concluded that refugees contribute twice as much money to the state than they take.
In 2015, Catholic Charities of Tennessee helped resettle 375 refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), Burundi, Congo, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. Altogether, about 1,600 refugees were resettled statewide.
The Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office, which includes staff members from 10 different countries, some of them former refugees, offers programming for elders and youth, and assistance with employment, healthcare services and English language classes. To help orient refugees with their new city, resettlement office caseworkers also assist with everyday tasks like navigating the bus system and grocery store. Through these services, resettlement staff and volunteers make every effort to begin assimilating refugees to their new community.
At the Dec. 9 hearing, David Shedd, former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, noted the importance of assimilation: “The best way to reduce the risk of terrorism is to assimilate refugees quickly,” he said. “One of the lessons that we have learned, and that we should be very proud of as Americans, is that we welcome refugees and quickly integrate them into our communities,” He noted that this is vastly different from many European cities, where refugees tend to remain closed off from the larger community, becoming alienated and potentially easier targets for radicalization.
Johnson agreed that “a great way to prevent radicalization is to make refugees feel welcome.” In the areas where refugees are resettled, she said, people are incredibly supportive. Days after anti-refugee sentiment reached a fever pitch in Tennessee, she received calls from people offering to open their homes to refugees. “That’s not how we operate, but it was a generous offer,” she said.
While the loudest voices in the on-going refugee debate seem to be borne out of fear and misinformation, there are many quieter voices who want to ensure that refugees are adjusting to their new home and integrating into the fabric of American society. “We get a lot of support,” Sinclair said. “There are a lot of people who want to help out.”