Despite some pushback from people who are anti-immigration, the resettlement process has gone extremely well, Poole said. Maybe that’s a reflection of the way of life in the West, where neighbors often count on each other, Pooled noted.
She mentioned one “crusty old rancher” who told her he was dead set against immigration, but said, “‘I’ll be the first one to shake their hands.’”
The barriers to immigration to the United States are high, Poole said.
The process can take at least two years, and less than one percent of refugees who register with the United Nations will end up being recommended for resettlement, Poole said.
The first priority for refugees is for them to get back home. The second option is to work with nations to get refugees legal status so they can stay where they landed after fleeing their homelands. The third option is resettlement in another country, “which is not an easy thing,” Poole said.
One of the qualifying factors for resettlement is whether the refugee would face death or retribution if they were to return home, according to Poole.
Where the Refugees Come From
According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the U.N.'s refugee agency, there are currently about 65.3 million people who have been forced from their homes around the world – the largest displacement ever measured by the organization. Of that figure, there are around 21.3 million people registered as refugees, people who are displaced outside the borders of their countries. The U.N. says over half of all refugees are under the age of 18.
More than half of current refugees come from just three nations: Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, and the majority of these refugees do not live in the West nor are they on the verge of traveling there, according to the U.N.
The United Nations says that around 1.19 million people will need to be resettled in 2017, due to the dire conditions in which they're living. The United States, which accepts more resettled refugees than any other country, will take only a fraction of that number. Since the war in Syria started in 2011, 5.5 million Syrians have fled their homeland and the United States has taken in just under 20,000 refugees, the U.N. says.
"Resettlement means taking refugees from places like Lebanon, where they are already refugees, selecting the most vulnerable and taking them to other places," Filippo Grandi, head of the U.N.'s refugee agency, said in a statement. "If we weaken that program, as has been done in the United States, this is a very dangerous weakening of the international solidarity for refugees."
The Vetting Process
Poole, of Soft Landing Missoula, said much of the talk over immigration is on the screening process that refugees must undergo. Poole said the process is rigorous, taking about two years and involving five federal agencies.
There are medical screenings, tests and interviews. “It’s a really long, hard process,” Poole said.
Poole is a fourth-generation Montana who sees resettling qualified refugees as a necessary humanitarian effort. The resettlement process has forged her ties to the community and has opened discussions among people of varied backgrounds and opinions.
Proponents of refugee resettlement in Missoula have tried to be compassionate and kind in their outreach and not just shut down conversations with opponents, label them as racists and bigots and make them feel they shouldn’t be validated in their views, Poole said.
“That’s a really important part of what we do – not just pulling supporters into the conversation,” she said. “I have some dear, dear friends who don’t agree with refugee resettlement, but knowing that we all come with a different story has been really positive for both sides in that relationship.”
What is a Refugee?
A legal refugee is someone who is fleeing their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.
A person applying for refugee status in the United States must first have been designated a refugee by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. After that is done, the individual can apply for refugee entrance into a number of countries willing to accept refugees.
People under consideration for refugee status in the United States must first go through a series of interviews with an immigration officer. As part of that process, an individual must complete a detailed application, a family history and biographical information, and go through a background and security check.
Once their application is complete and approved, the applicant’s name and case is presented by the U.S. State Department to one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies, which gather weekly in Washington for agency distributions.
If a refugee candidate makes it this far in the process, a local community office provides appropriate interpreting and resettling services for the arriving refugee. The local office can then decide to accept or reject the case for resettlement through their office. The actual arrival of the refugee may not occur for several months or even years, depending on circumstance out of the control of the local agencies, according to the College of Southern Idaho.
Refugees accepted for entry into the United States must sign agreements to accept any appropriate employment when offered and must sign a promissory note to pay back the costs of their flight to the United States. Refugees with disabilities and individuals under 18 or 65 and older are exempt from the employment requirements.
A Long Legacy of Resettlement
The resettlement of refugees through the International Rescue Committee continues the legacy of Albert Einstein, who in 1933 helped start the American branch of the European-based International Relief Association. His goal was to assist Germans suffering under Hitler and his allies in Italy and Spain.
“The effort here is enormous, and the support is overwhelming at times,” Poole said. “It's been eye-opening and phenomenal and amazing, the support and welcome and love these families have received. My two-year-old, one day, will be sitting in a classroom with other people of other nationalities and seeing the world through others' eyes. There will be huge challenges but let’s try and get through this together.”
Poole said the resettlement effort reflects a good-neighbor aspect of living in the West.
“Maybe it's a Western thing,” she said. “Independence is strong, but there is also a strong pull to help your neighbors, because in times of need they are the only ones you can rely on.”
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