Lutheran Church and Family Services explains refugee process, community approval

Lutheran Church and Family Services resettlement agency has a location in Lancaster. They also have locations in Allentown and Philadelphia. Approximately 500 individuals a year are resettled by Lutheran Church and Family Services.

“We anticipate that 200 persons will be served this year in Lancaster,” Janet Panning, the program director at Lutheran Church and Family Services resettlement agency, said.

People who leave their countries of origin in order to escape discrimination, war or natural disaster are considered refugees. Once it is known that they are unable to return to their country, they must be resettled in another country.  Refugees are typically residing in refugee camps in countries that cannot permanently resettle them. Refugees then have to make the pilgrimage to another country to be permanently resettled. Less than one half of 1% of the world’s refugees receives permanent resettlement according to US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Refugees need to pass the security process in order to obtain benefits. The State Department runs their name through the system. “Certain refugees undergo an additional security review called a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). These cases require a positive SAO clearance from a number of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies in order to continue the resettlement process,” US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants stated.This intensive process starts with security screenings. The first step is to determine if a person is considered a refugee. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees consults international law to see if a person qualifies as a refugee. UNHCR then refers the refugee to a country by contacting their embassy, an NGO, or the government. The refugee’s information is given to a resettlement agency for the security clearance.

The people then get fingerprinted. The fingerprints are run through the system. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services send an officer to interview the people in detail. Then the officer makes a decisionto label the person a refugee or not. The application is then submit it to the U.S. Department of State for final processing. Then the applicants have to be screened medically.

Once the person is cleared medically sound and their background was cleared, Voluntary Agency in the U.S. take on the case. Lutheran Church and Family Services resettlement agency and Church World Service are two Voluntary Agencies in Lancaster city. Then refugees are referred to cultural orientation.

Another security check is conducted before the refugees enter the US. There are five arrival sites in the US that refugees can fly into. Then more security checks are needed to confirm that the person who hopped off the plane is the same person they claim to be. Extra screening and security measures are taken for Syrian refugees.

“If everything goes well and the clearances line up, someone could go from start to finish in 18 months after getting referred by the UNHCR to the US refugee program,” Panning said.

The clearances sometimes expire while the refugees wait to be resettled. If a person does not get referred to the US by UNHCR, they could potentially stay in the refugee camp indefinitely.

“Only about 50%, depending on location, of those referred to the US refugee program actually get approved,” Panning said.

Lutheran Church and Family Services resettlement agency provides placement services, employment assistance, cultural orientation and immigration legal services. There was an anti-refugee rally that took place Jan. 2. A large group that opposed the anti-refugee sentiment then held a counter-rally in the same area. Panning said that community has continued to support resettling refugees in the area.

“I have received about 400 e-mails from persons wanting to support refugees and 4 expressing negative feelings,” Panning said.


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