Part 4 of our Road To Refuge series looks at the logistics of the refugee process, how that process will work in Ithaca, and aims to start a dialogue between those organizing refugee placement in Ithaca and their fellow community members.

ITHACA, N.Y. — The reality of the refugee process is convoluted and overwhelming. To be approved to come to America, and settle in Ithaca, requires a vetting process of over 20 steps, including multiple mandatory screenings by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

See the US screening process for refugee entry

Before a refugee’s case even reaches the initial stages of the US process, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or UNHCR) conducts interviews to assess eligibility for refugee status — that the individual or family can prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country. That’s the term used in international asylum law, based on the United Nations’ 1951 multilateral treaty that defined refugee status; which in turn was based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Biometric data, such as fingerprints and iris scans, is collected. This is just the start of what will be an 18 to 24 month process, according to statistics published by the State Department. Here, The Ithaca “Voice lays out how it works for our community:

RefugeFullHow Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga applied to be a resettlement agency

In late 2015 and early 2016, following impetus from within the Ithaca community, meetings between the Catholic Family Center in Rochester (CFC), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington D.C. took place.

The meetings discussed the eligibility of Ithaca as a suitable settlement location. It was decided that the city — with its strong school system, culture of collaboration and established community services — could be an ideal spot.

This prompted an application by Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Counties (or CCTT) to become a resettlement office, which is currently being assessed by  the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).

This also included an application, in May of this year, to settle 50 individuals – a number that was thought by CCTT to be appropriate for the size of Ithaca’s community and reach of its social services. It is also the minimum number the State Department will consider. This will be the first time that CCTT will operate as a resettlement office.

If Ithaca as a location – and the request for 50 refugees – is approved, the biographical information for refugee families will reach the desk of Sue Chaffee, Director of the Immigrant Services Program at Catholic Charities in Ithaca – up to two years following the refugee’s initial meeting with the UNHCR. The decision from the State Department’s PRM bureau will come through in September or October and Ithaca could start receiving refugees as early as October of this year.

Related: Catholic Charities outlines plan to bring 50 refugees to Ithaca in 2017

During the initial discussion phase, as CCTT was putting together its application, it was decided refugees from eight countries could be placed here: Syria, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Burma, Ukraine, Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. The list is based on languages already spoken within our community and current, settled, populations from those regions.

Refugee: Ithaca is a ‘piece of heaven’ after years of living in war-torn Iraq

Catholic Family Center (CFC) in Rochester has overseen the training of people within Ithaca, including Chaffee, who has spent the summer “ramping up services,” she says, along with meetings with the heads of every local agency or organization that might have a stake in the process. In September, 12 members of Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR) will receive training in collaboration with both the Rochester and Ithaca offices.

Why Catholic Charities?

Chaffee has been the head of the local Catholic Charities’ immigration services since 2009 and much of the infrastructure and relationships within the community already exist to help refugees, she says.

“We help immigrants get their basic needs met, help with employment opportunities and get them into community resources; obtaining drivers’ licenses, housing, healthcare and applying for Green Cards,” she says. “These services are naturally transferable to refugees.

“When I came on board I got my accreditation to do legal immigration services. So we provide a combination of social and legal services. The clients we serve, the majority of them are refugees that we have settled in Ithaca. But we’ve never been a refugee resettlement agency before.”

Ithaca will be a “sub office” of the Catholic Family Center Rochester, which is one of Catholic Charities’ sister programs, she says.

Why Ithaca?

“I think Ithaca is a very welcoming community,” says Chaffee. “We already have the infrastructure in place. I have the legal services available, and other low cost immigration services. We [Catholic Charities] are known by the immigrant community here,  and I think we’re very successful with the services we provide.”

Furthermore, she says, “I think that the ESL (English as a Second Language) services available are very good. We have a department of social services that’s very supportive of our efforts. I think the school district is really good in taking in refugee children too.”

Collaboration within the community

When Chaffee filed the application, she received letters of support from Mayor Myrick, the commissioner of the Tompkins County Department of Social Services and the Department of Health, and the heads of local English as Second Language (ESL) programs.  Other future collaborators, who will help place and settle refugees, include the Ithaca City School District, the local BOCES, Tompkins Learning Partners and the members of IWR (with its army of 300-plus volunteers). Funders include the Community Foundation, the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency

Related: Road to Refuge: a new grassroots movement welcomes refugees to Ithaca

Chaffee added, “One of the great things about providing services in Ithaca is how well the community does work together and my experience has been that all of these agencies are committed to creating a welcoming environment for immigrants (including refugees).”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”

Renee Spear, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Counties, says her role – and that of Catholic Charities – is to “ensure that any and all refugees are getting the services that they need to feel welcomed and safe here in Tompkins County.

“This is a community partnership once it is up and running and we look forward to working and collaborating with as many partners as possible” says Spear. To that end, IWR has signed up 340 volunteers, and raised $14,000 to assist with resettlement. Catholic Charities is still collecting their volunteer information.

“I have a list of potential volunteers who I told I would contact once I knew we secured the grant — so don’t have any numbers to report on at this stage,” Chaffee said.

Once Ithaca is approved as a resettlement site: “I’m going to be alerting the stakeholders in the community, ‘we have a family coming’,” she says, and that’s when the waiting and preparing phase moves into action.

State Department mandates specify that the family is collected from the airport, oriented to their new home and provided a hot meal. Then, shortly after, “we’ll bring them into our office and we’re required to do a cultural orientation with them,” says Chaffee.

Longer term, she says, “Our goal is to make them self-sufficient as quickly as possible.”

A new life in Ithaca

After arrival in Ithaca, working-age family members are required to be self-sufficient within six months. Within a year they will apply for Green Card status. According to Spear, Catholic Charities will receive $2,025 per person.  This is broken down as $900 per refugee arrival for administration and $1,125 per refugee for “client direct” assistance. This money comes from the State Department (PRM) as part of the “Reception and Placement Program” that covers the first 90 days’ costs of resettling each refugee.

Once approved by PRM as a resettlement site, CCTT has the option to seek out support from other federal programs including those administered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

The refugees “immediately qualify for public assistance and we are the ones that will help them with the application process,” says Chaffee. “They are going to be working and contributing to our tax base within six months. Many refugees become home owners within five or six years.”

US refugee policy vs European

The American process is in stark contrast to what takes place in many European countries.  Take Germany for example. There, an open-door policy is written into the German constitution:

Article 16a of the Basic Law grants victims of political persecution an individual right of asylum. The fundamental right of asylum thus has high priority and expresses Germany’s willingness to fulfil its historical and humanitarian obligation to admit refugees.”

This law was approved on 8 May 1949, along with the signatures of the Western Allies following the end of the Second World War.

Concerns within the community

Since Mayor Myrick publicly advocated the welcoming of refugees on social media last November, concerns within the community have been raised. These focus on two areas: security and cost.

Susanne Messner, co-owner of the Lively Run Farm in Interlaken, NY, is German and worked in the refugee camps there during the 1990s as a social worker. She had an upclose view of how the system works in her home country.

“When we worked in the camps, we came into contact with some very dangerous people,” she says.  Of people who look to Germany, and other European nations with concern about their immigration policy, she says, “To not scrutinize the process is also a mistake; there has to be a balance of the two. You want to help the ones that deserve the help but you have to be careful of those who are posing as refugees with the intent of harming.”

Germany has an “open door” policy to refugees and asylum seekers, she says. “I think most people don’t understand that accepting refugees is part of the German constitution.” That is not the case in America, as the lengthy process of screening shows.

“When people say, hey, I’m a refugee. I need asylum. They have to take them in,” she said. “We can’t belittle people in the community who are afraid. On the other side, we can’t be so afraid that we don’t help anymore. We are abdicating our humanity if that is the case.”

Read more about Ithaca’s push to welcome refugees below:

Mayor Myrick pledges to help Syrian refugees relocate to Ithaca

Ithaca (officially) welcomes refugees; local group will help them find their place

How 5 local farms are banding together to help an Iraqi refugee in Tompkins County

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at or click on the icons in the top right for more.