About Tucson Refugees

1. Who is a refugee?

The 1980 Refugee Act relating to the Status of Refugees” defined a refugee as: “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality or habitual residence because of a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

People may flee their countries because of war, social and political unrest, or because a government is persecuting certain categories of people.  Those among them who qualify as refugees are entitled to receive “international protection,” which is monitored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).   If necessary, UNHCR will intervene to ensure refugees are not forcibly returned to countries where their lives may be in danger.

The United Nations identifies three options or “durable solutions” for refugees: 1) integration into the countries to which they have fled (called the “Country of First Asylum”), 2) voluntary return to their homeland (“voluntary repatriation”) or 3) resettlement to a “third country.” The U.S., Canada, Australia, and countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia accept the most refugees for resettlement.  However, less than1% of the refugees around the world are resettled in “third countries.”

2.  Who is not a refugee?

While refugees are one kind of immigrant in the U.S., not all immigrants are refugees. To qualify as a refugee – and therefore be able to seek the protection of UNHCR and qualify for possible resettlement in a third country – people must prove that they are unable to return to their homeland and avail themselves of the security of that country due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.

People who claim to be refugees are initially called “asylum seekers.”  Once their claims to refugee status have been approved by national asylum systems, they officially become “refugees.” According to UNHCR, “an asylum-seeker is an individual who has sought international protection and whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. It is important to note, however, that a person is a refugee from the moment he/she fulfils the criteria set out the Refugee Act of 1980. The formal recognition of someone, for instance through individual refugee status determination (RSD), does not establish refugee status, but confirms it.  As part of its obligation to protect refugees on its territory, the country of asylum is normally responsible for determining whether an asylum-seeker is a refugee or not.

During mass movements of people, entire groups of people who have fled for fear of persecution are determined as a refugee by the United Nations on an individual basis.

In addition, many people are “internally displaced”[2] if they have left their homes because of war or unrest, but have not crossed an international border into another country.  These people are still subject to the laws of their countries, rather than to international refugee law.  UNHCR has been getting involved with some of these “internally displaced people” around the world, but there is still debate on how they should be protected, or by whom.

People who are displaced from their homes within their own countries are not considered to be refugees.  Although these people may seek – and qualify for – international assistance, they are not eligible for protection under the UNHCR or for asylum.

The UNHCR estimated that in 2007, there were almost 10 million refugees around the world, and another 13 million IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons).  [3]  According to the UNHCR, the best possible solution for refugees is to solve the problems that caused them to flee in the first place, allowing them to return to their homelands (called “voluntary repatriation.”).  Resettlement in a third country is very difficult and is a last resort intended only for the most vulnerable refugees.

3.  What is a refugee camp?

Refugee camps are temporary settlements for refugees and/or internally displaced persons.  Camps differ in their size and structure in different parts of the world. Some people may have lived in refugee camps for many years.

(see: http://doctorswithoutborders.org/events/refugeecamp/home/)

4.  How do refugees get admitted for resettlement in the U.S.?

If a person has been granted refugee status, they can be referred by UNHCR to the U.S. for possible resettlement. The State Department contracts several international organizations to help refugees prepare application materials for entry into the U.S.  These materials are submitted to the Department of Homeland Security for approval.

Decisions about which refugees can resettle in the U.S. are made by the U.S. Department of State. Every year the President sets quotas, called the “Presidential Determination” for refugee admissions from different parts of the world.  These quotas were lowered drastically after September 11th, 2001, and are now slowly rising to earlier levels.

Refugees are admitted to the U.S. as “cases.”  Generally, a case is a single, unmarried individual or a family: married couples, their children under age 21, and sometimes their parents.  Extended families are rarely included in one case.

In 2009, the U.S. has agreed to resettle 12,000 people from Africa, 19,000 from East Asia (mostly from Myanmar/Burma), 2,500 from Europe (mostly religious minorities from the former Soviet Union), 4,500 from Latin America (mostly from Cuba), and 37,000 from the Middle East/South Asia (mostly from Iraq).

5.  How are refugees resettled in the U.S.?

Refugees who meet the criteria for resettlement in the U.S. are usually interviewed in refugee camps by a representative of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) – formerly the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS).  If the case is approved for resettlement, the case is referred to the U.S. Department of State who then refers the case to one of the ten national organizations [4] that have a “cooperative agreement” with the federal government to handle refugee resettlement in the U.S.  These are all voluntary refugee resettlement agencies (called “VOLAGs”) whose national offices have a cooperative agreement with the federal government to provide services. They are funded by the federal government to provide “reception and placement” services for refugees for the first 30 days after their arrival. Three of these national agencies have local affiliate offices in Tucson.

Within the U.S., refugee resettlement is coordinated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds state governments and public and private community-based organizations to provide a range of social services to refugees, provides assistance to state offices of refugee resettlement to pay for initial cash assistance, and contracts with the VOLAGs to provide initial resettlement at the local level.

6.  How do refugees get to Tucson? Why here?

The ten national refugee resettlement agencies decide which refugee cases will be sent to their local affiliates, of which there are three in Tucson: Catholic Community Services (an affiliate of USCCB); the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest (LSS-SW).  Occasionally, refugees request to be resettled in Tucson in order to join family members who are already here and willing to assist the newly-arrived family, but the local voluntary agencies generally accept cases for resettlement based solely on the agency’s ability to serve the families or individuals.

Historically, Tucson has been considered a good city for refugee resettlement.  There has been strong community support for refugees, evidenced by the very large numbers of volunteers and nonprofit organizations that work with refugees.  In addition, until 2009, Tucson had a good job market for refugees, because of the relatively easy availability of unskilled jobs that require little English language.

7. How do refugees arrive in Tucson?  What happens when they arrive?

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) arranges transportation from the refugee camp to Tucson.  The refugee resettlement agency, VOLAG, is responsible for meeting the refugees at the airport, and having an apartment ready for them to move into with basic furnishings, and utilities.  The agencies are also responsible for arranging medical check-ups for each member of the refugee family, for enrolling children in school, and if adults are determined able to work, assisting them in applying for jobs.  Refugees are legally employable, but resettlement agencies will assist refugees with going through the “e-verify” system.

8. What is the LEGAL STATUS of refugees in Tucson?

Refugees are LEGAL immigrants to the U.S.  Refugees are given an “I-94” card indicating their legal status in the US and which allows them to work and access social services as legal immigrants.  After one year, refugees are required by law to apply for lawful permanent residence (LPR) and obtain their “green card”.  Five years after their arrival, refugees are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.



[1] UNHCR: An Introduction to International Protection, Pg 21, Section 1.3.1 “Refugees & Asylum- Seekers”

[2] UNHCR defines Internally Displaced Persons as “people or groups of individuals who have been forced to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural- or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an international border”

[3] UNHCR – 2008 Global Trends – Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons

[4] Ten Agencies:  State of Iowa, Bureau of Refugee Services, World Relief Corporation (WR), United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), Church World Service (CWS)