2.4 Entering the United States

Entering the United States

“In my opinion this country is even harder to adjust to, harder to live in because… because there are lots of rules and laws that bind us here. It is much harder to do things in this country. I came at an old age already, and learning English does not come easy. Everything is much harder for me.”

-Mai Vang Thao, Hmong refugee

Formal Supports

When refugees have been accepted for admittance to the United States, they are provided with a cultural orientation that can include information and education on basic English phrases, how to shake hands, interviewing for a job, using a western toilet, or the experience of flying on a plane. The International Organization for Migration provides a loan to refugees to cover their airplane ticket expenses from the United States government; they must repay this loan once they are resettled in the country.

Once they arrive, the Office of Refugee Resettlement assigns a voluntary agency (VOLAG) to offer them help (see “Key Organizations in Refugee Admissions and Integration” for a full description of agencies involved in refugee resettlement and policy). These VOLAGs often meet the refugee at the airport and arrange for housing and basic furnishings. They teach the refugees how to purchase groceries and use transportation, and connect them with resources for employment and education. These services are only available for 30-90 days. Across organizations and across states, there is no consistent process for these relocation/integration services, and availability of and applications for resources may vary. In some states, refugees are also eligible for cash assistance or medical assistance beyond this 90 day period (Refugee Council USA, 2019).

Key Organizations in Refugee Admissions and Integration

The following organizations enforce refugee policy and/or help with refugee integration:

  • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM): PRM is a bureau under the U.S. Department of State, and it works internationally to develop human solutions to displacement. They provide funding to and work with international organizations such as the U.N. that operate refugee camps. The director of PRM also serves as the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, and is responsible to the president to help develop policy relating to refugees, including admission ceilings and priorities.
  • Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR): ORR is an office within the Department of Health and Human Services. It works with state governments and provides funding for voluntary agencies to facilitate economic and social support to refugees.
  • Resettlement Support Centers (RSC): These international organizations help prepare files and store data for those applying for refugee status.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protections (CBP): USCIS evaluates applications for refugee status, and the CBP screens refugees when they arrive.
  • Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGs). Voluntary agencies, such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigrations and Refugee Services, have agreements with the State Department to provide reception and placement services for refugees. These agencies are funded through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. VOLAGs often contract with the ORR to provide resettlement-related services.

The VOLAG works with sponsoring relatives when applicable, and will sometimes find an individual, church, or other private group that can assist with sponsorship if there is no sponsoring relative (Refugee Council USA, 2019). Refugees are eligible for all welfare benefits offered to citizens, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid.


A Congolese family being met at the airport by their case worker

Congolese Family being met at the airport by their case worker.

World Relief Spokane – Welcome to Spokane – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.



True Thao, MSW, LICSW discusses economic challenges facing refugees and highlights observations in the Hmong community.

An Overwhelming Transition

Imagine waking up, and finding that everything in your life has changed. Your bed is a different size, shared with a different number of people, and in a different location. You wake up to a new sound, and it is a different temperature than you expect. You get up, and find that the only foods available are foreign to you. You try to go shopping, but you do not know how to navigate the transportation system. When you get there, the food all seem unfamiliar. You do not know how to pay for your food – the currency seems odd, and you also have a “money card” that you don’t understand how to use. You cannot talk to anyone well. You come home and someone has put a piece of paper on the door, which you cannot read and do not know how to have translated.

After relocation, families must navigate a new completely new culture. Everything is new. Often, a family faces changes in every aspect of life. Betancourt, Abdi, Ito, Lilienthal, Agalab, & Ellis (2014) documented major shifts in the experiences of Somali refugee families in Boston, including:

  • These Somali families lost resources during the flight from their home country, and arrived to the United States in poverty regardless of their previous status.
  • Parents lost employment status, as their previous employment credentials were not accepted in the United States.
  • Children were exposed to drugs, violence, and gain activity in the neighborhoods in which they were located.
  • Despite this strained economic standing, families felt responsible to send money back to extended family in Somalia.
  • Parent-Child authority structures shifted. Children who were more fluent in English withheld information about their situations at school.
  • Children faced discrimination based on their nationality. Families were separated from extended support (Betancourt et al., 2014).

These changes, combined with encountering a completely new culture, would shake any family’s coping skills. Unfortunately, the social supports available to refugees are difficult to access. Parents lack knowledge of how to navigate school systems and the health care system, and are further isolated from services by lack of transportation and financial resources (Isik-Ercan, 2012; Navuluri et al., 2014). Mental health services are frequently not culturally sensitive or geared towards refugees (Shannon et al., 2014; Weine, 2011).

After arriving in the United States, many states require or recommend that refugees receive a physical screening. In spite of the inherent exposure to potentially traumatic events, no states currently require mental health screenings. Some argue that screenings would be unethical without a referral infrastructure in place while others suggest that this is part of the process of addressing mental health concerns and working toward an infrastructure (for additional information about mental health among refugees, please see Chapter 5). After conducting focus groups with refugees about mental health needs, Shannon and her colleagues argue that existing infrastructures could be trained to be responsive to refugee needs. “Health care providers might require more training about how work collaboratively with new populations of refugees to assess the mental health effects of war” (2014, p. 13).

“Understanding and healing the symptoms of political oppression starts in the initial assessment with validating the ways that political trauma has rendered refugees ‘voiceless.’ Listening, documenting, and witnessing individual and community stories of exposure to human rights violations is credited as an essential component of restoring human dignity.”

-Shannon, Wieling, Simmelink, & Becher, 2014, p. 11.


Paul Orieny, Sr. Clinical Advisor for Mental Health at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), discusses the immense change families encounter after arriving in the United States (0:00-1:23).


Applying for Citizenship

Refugee status is granted for one year. After that time, refugees are required to apply to become a permanent resident alien, which provides them with the commonly known ‘green card’ (Refugee Council, 2014). Asylees are also eligible to apply for permanent resident alien status, although it is not required. A permanent resident alien is entitled to many of the same supports as citizens, including free public education, authorization to work in the United States, and travel documents to leave and return to the United States (Refugee Council USA, 2019). However, permanent resident aliens remain citizens of their home country, must maintain residence in the United States in order to maintain their status, must renew their status every 10 years, and cannot vote in federal elections (USCIS, 2019). After being a permanent resident for five years, refugees and asylees can apply for citizenship (Congressional Research Service, 2018).

Family Reunification

Once resettled, refugees are able to apply to bring certain family members to join them in the United States if they were not able to come together. In order to bring additional family members to the United States, refugees must apply within two years of being granted refugee or asylee status. Refugees are able to apply to bring a spouse or children who are unmarried, under 21 years old, and conceived before leaving. Only anchor or “principal applicant” refugees are allowed to apply to bring family members. A principal applicant is generally the first refugee from a family to arrive in the United States. These principal applicants then apply to bring their immediate family members. However, the family members coming to join a principle refugee will not be able to apply to bring additional family members (Refugee Council USA, 2019). For example, a refugee could apply to bring his/her parents, his/her wife, and their children to the United States. After they arrive, the wife/husband is not eligible to apply to bring her/his parents. This means that some refugees will continue to feel separated and isolated from loved ones.

The process for family reunification is onerous. Refugees currently residing in their host country and their family members awaiting permission to join them must both work through cumbersome systems in their respective countries. The anchor or principal applicant in the United States must file an application with USCIS, and must provide proof of their relationship to the family members (through birth or marriage certificates, receipts of remittances sent home, photographs, etc.). The family members in the home country must then complete visa interviews, medical examination, security background checks, and DNA testing (in the case of children).

At any stage along this process, the official can deny the application if they suspect fraud. If an adjudicator suspects fraud in the anchor refugee’s application, they can request stronger evidence of the relationship. If they remain unconvinced that the refugee is telling the truth, they can deny the application. If officers suspect fraud during the visa interview process, they will decline the issue the visa. They may also decline visas for health reasons or for past criminal behavior. There are waivers available, but not all potential refugees are aware of the waivers. Denials require a written rebuttal, the processing of which can take many months. If the rebuttal is approved, the family members in the home country must complete the interviews again. Many lack the education or the resources to tackle these processes. Refugees may not even be aware that they are eligible for reunification, as there is no systematic way of informing them. Currently it is not clear how many family members eligible for reunification are able to complete the process and submit a full application (Haile, 2015).

There are supports available to help refugees through this process. The VOLAGs who assist with refugee resettlement generally have services available to assist in applications for family reunification. Local community organizations often also offer services to help prepare and complete applications. In Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Council of Churches hosts weekly information sessions about family reunification eligibility and the application process.

Support from Afar

In cases where families cannot be or choose not to be reunited, refugees still find ways to provide support to one another. Refugees may support family and friends through remittances or may spend time and money trying to locate and bring family members to the United States. In other cases, some may forgo long terms gains, such as job training or college, to be able to immediately help others (Betancourt et al., 2014). While this may cause emotional distress for some, it can also be the source of motivation to make the most of their opportunities. Transnational family connections help refugees retain a sense of identity within their culture and family (Lim, 2009).


Refugees are inherently survivors. They have experienced loss and traumatic events but have found ways to survive. For example, Somali refugee families in Boston used religious faith, healthy family communication, support networks, and peer talks to make new lives for themselves (Betancourt et al., 2014). Refugee youth take on new responsibilities after migration, including interpreting, providing financial support, and helping parents navigate services (Hynie, Guruge, & Shakya, 2012). The ways refugee individuals, families, and communities find and create support differ greatly. They draw on family and community resilience to find ways to continue to survive and, in many cases, thrive.

Refugee resilience is seen when they rebuild community networks in the cities to which they relocate. Others have formed organizations to protect and lobby for their communities, and others have been elected to public offices.


Congressman Ellison with Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua

Keith Ellison – Congressman Ellison with Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua – CC BY 2.0.

Mee Moua: Senator Mee Moua is the first Hmong American woman to become a Minnesota State Senator. Moua came to the U.S. with her family in 1978 and has since worked her way up from the public housing projects of Appleton, Wisconsin to the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. Moua is also an accomplished attorney who lives with her mother, her husband, and their two children.

“The issue is not whether the Asian American politicians are ready, it’s really whether America is ready.”
For a complete interview about her path to the U.S., go to: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/06/29/moua.


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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