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9 things about CNY's resettlement system as officials eye region to host Ukrainian refugees

Ukrainian and U.S. flags fly in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Valentyn Ogirenko
Ukrainian and U.S. flags fly in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Syracuse's mayor, the executive of Onondaga County and state representatives are calling to place refugees from Ukraine in Central New York. On the latest episode of Syracuse Speaks, WAER's Tarryn Mento and Katie Zilcosky dig into how the process works, the challenges newcomers face and how Ukrainian refugees may fit into the system.

Felicia Castricone, program officer for refugee resettlement services at Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, and Lucy Saldana, deputy executive director for Hiscock Legal Aid Society, joined Syracuse Speaks to discuss the process. Here are nine things we learned.

1. The refugee community in Syracuse is quite diverse. Syracuse has been resettling refugees from countries in crisis for more than 40 years. Historically, the city of Syracuse has welcomed refugees from Ukraine, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Vietnam. More recently, Syracuse has resettled refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma), Bhutan, Syria and Iraq.

2. But the timeline to bring people to the U.S. is not quick. The process of refugee resettlement is usually slow. "Most refugees will wait at least two years, and often longer, for their refugee case to be processed," Castricone said.

Refugees must complete screenings, medical exams, and other protocols before being permitted to enter the United States.

3. There are many officials involved to let refugees into the country. The U.S. State Department establishes and manages the system to process refugees for settlement. But the agency works closely with the presidential administration, which ultimately decides the annual cap on these newcomers. Congress also approves the figure.

4. Those that made it through the process to Syracuse are largely coming from two countries. "I think Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were our big resettlement numbers in 2016, and have continued to be — will probably be big numbers this year as well," Castricone said.

5. But not all people seeking refuge in the U.S. have access to the same resources. Being a refugee is a benefit granted to someone when outside of the country, where they are screened before granted entry to the U.S. Asylum is something applied for within the United States. Then there are humanitarian parolees who typically enter the country for emergency reasons based on an officer's review, but do not receive the same benefits refugees and asylees. Saldana said this status largely applied to the Afghan community.

"A lot of these individuals, it really depends on a case-by-case basis to determine what relief they're eligible for," Saldana said. "It could be asylum. It could be special immigrant juvenile status. It could be special immigrant visa. It could be family petitions, it just depends on the case."

She said Hiscock works with volunteers lawyers to identify the best status under which people from Afghanistan can apply for assistance.

6. The situation for recent Afghan refugees was particularly unique. The Afghan individuals who recently entered the United States came under humanitarian parole status. Their help to the U.S. government, or role working for American companies, enabled them to apply for special immigrant visas. But most did not get their visas processed before Afghanistan's fall to the Taliban, so they left swiftly, and the screenings took place at military bases in the United States.

"The evacuation had to happen very quickly," Castricone said. "It was nothing like we have ever seen before in resettlement."

7. Local immigration attorneys are in high demand to navigate the legal side. Federal funding helps pay for attorneys, but with a high number of resettled individuals arriving, many have a heavy workload.

"We are lucky that the Office for New Americans currently funds five immigration attorneys for the CNY region," Saldana said. "We don't have the manpower to screen all these individuals and that's why we are seeking volunteers in the region, especially from the legal community, and interpreters, that can step up and help us with this process."

These attorneys can handle anywhere between from 30 to 60 cases at a time, she said, and a lot of them are already at capacity.

8. The challenges facing refugees continue beyond arrival. Language barriers, a shortage of interpreters and unfamiliarity with technology in order to provide documentation for claims are just some of the many challenges these individuals encounter when they arrive in their new communities. Others may not even have the records they need to verify their case.

Plus many, especially Afghan refugees, may have left relatives in their home country and are going through the family reunification process to bring them to Syracuse.

9. Ukrainian refugees likely won't arrive right away. President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would accept 100,000 refugees from Ukraine but that doesn't mean it'll happen soon. Without a U.S. military presence in the country, and as refugees flee to multiple neighboring nations, the process to clear them for resettlement in U.S. may move slowly, Saldana said.

"If they go through the regular resettlement process it will take probably at least two years to process their cases," she said.

However, there may be earlier options. People with family could try to enter under a special visa, or the White House could grant humanitarian parole. Similar to those from Afghanistan, this would temporarily permit people safety in the U.S. while they prove their legal right to stay.

Matt Fairfax is an undergraduate student studying Broadcast & Digital Journalism at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, expected to graduate in May 2023.