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During a January debate regarding Rex Tillerson’s nomination to U.S. Secretary of State, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, spoke out against what she claimed to be "misinformation" coming out of the White House on refugees looking to enter the United States.
McCaskill addressed the extreme vetting process refugees entering the United States had to undergo even before the ban introduced by Donald Trump on Jan. 27, which temporarily blocked refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries. To reach the United States, she said, refugees must first go through international powers.
"Let me first start with this important principle: Nobody applies to the United States for refugee status. They apply to the United Nations," McCaskill said.
We decided to verify this claim. Do all people seeking refugee status have to go through the United Nations first?
Refugee status vs. refugee resettlement
First a bit of context. McCaskill talked about getting "refugee status," but it seems evident she is speaking about permanent resettlement.
While there are millions of refugees worldwide, only a sliver of them qualify for refugee resettlement, said Nayla Rush, a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors lowering immigration. And resettlement is only sought by the world’s most vulnerable refugees — those who have fled their home countries for a second country and either cannot return home or must then flee to a third. These "third" countries, according to the U.S. Department of State, are "typically more developed countries, further from conflict regions, such as the United States." Resettlement does not apply to every person seeking refugee status.
"You cannot resettle millions," Rush said. "This resettlement program was offered to people who even in their country of refuge, they cannot stay."
So not every refugee is resettled. But among those who are, is the process always directed through the United Nations?
To get an answer, we spoke with Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer at the U.N.
He told us that McCaskill is incorrect. Although uncommon, the United States does see direct applications for refugee resettlement, Yungk said.
Yungk directed us to a State Department report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017. The document explained that refugees looking to apply for resettlement are categorized into three different "priority" groups. The way an individual reaches the United States – through the United Nations or not – depends on the priority group he or she is in.
-- In Priority 1 cases, individuals are referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees based on their circumstances and need for resettlement. This means that the people in this category apply and are admitted to the program individually, on a case by case basis.
--In Priority 2 cases, groups of people are referred to the Refugee Admissions Program based on their circumstances and need for resettlement. This means that those in this category apply and are admitted to the program in groups, and not on a case-by-case basis.
-- In Priority 3 cases, refugees are referred to the Refugee Admissions Program through applications submitted by nuclear family members already living in the United States. These refugees are "granted access for the purposes of reunification" with their families, according to the report to Congress.
Resettlement cases in each priority group can be processed either through the U.N. or the United States depending on the circumstance, Yungk said, though the majority of cases are handled through the U.N. In Priority 3 cases, the United States is most involved. In Priority 1 cases, the U.N. is most involved.
Overall, Yungk estimated that about 20 percent to 30 percent of resettlement cases are handled by the United States and not the U.N.
"We don’t refer anybody under P3 because that’s a U.S. program," Yungk said. "In P2, I would say about half the group are ours and about half are U.S.-defined P2s ... most of the individual cases come from us," he said.
McCaskill said "nobody applies to the United States for refugee status. They apply to the United Nations."
Overall, most refugees seeking resettlement to the United States must first go through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, refugees with nuclear family members already living in the United States are given a different priority that isn’t processed through the United Nations.
We rate McCaskill’s claim False.
Senate Session, Part 2, "For Consideration of Rex Tillerson’s Nomination to be Secretary of State, Feb. 20, 2017
U.S. Department of StateU.S. Refugee Admissions Program FAQs, Feb. 24, 2017
Report to the Congress, "Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2017, March 1, 2017
Email interview, McCaskill spokeswoman Sarah Feldman, Feb. 24, 2017
Phone interview, Nayla Rush, senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, Feb. 21, 2017
Phone interview, Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer at UNHCR, March 1, 2017
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