FAQs

Who is a refugee?
What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
What is the difference between a refugee and an asylee?
What does TOR do?
Who does TOR serve?
Are refugees in the Unites States legally?
Where do refugees come from?
How do refugees get to the United States?
Are refugees screened?
Who works with refugees in Tennessee?
Do refugees choose their resettlement city?
How many refugees come to Tennessee and where do they live?
Are refugees allowed to work?
Who pays for refugee resettlement in Tennessee?
How can I help?

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is an individual who flees their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on of five protected classes: religion, political opinion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. Refugee status must be applied for and received after the screening process proves the well-founded fear is true. Refugees must also be otherwise admissible to the United States and not firmly resettled in a third country.1

1) 101 (a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

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What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?

An immigrant is any person who comes to permanently live in a different country. Refugees are one category of immigrants. Not all immigrants are refugees; some other categories of immigrants to the United States include business people, foreign spouses of United States citizens, and family members of United States citizens.

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What is the difference between a refugee and an asylee?

Asylum status is a form of protection available to people who:

  • Meet the definition of refugee
  • Are already in the United States
  • Are seeking admission at a port of entry

Learn more about these two designations.

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What does TOR do?

The Tennessee Office for Refugees (TOR) coordinates refugee services across the state. Funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Tennessee Refugee Program helps refugees statewide access cash and medical assistance, initial medical screenings, employment, social adjustment services, and English language training in an effort to achieve self-sufficiency. Learn more about what we do.

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Who does TOR serve?

TOR funding can be used to serve refugees, asylees, special immigrant visa (SIV) holders, victims of trafficking, Amerasians, and Cuban/Hatian entrants. Learn more about each of these populations.

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Are refugees in the United States legally?

  • Refugees travel to the United States legally and are authorized for employment immediately.2
  • One year after arrival, refugees are required to apply for permanent residence (green card).2
  • Refugees can apply for citizenship after five years of residence in the United States.2

2) state.gov/refugee-admissions/reception-and-placement/

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Where do refugees come from?

Refugees come from many countries around the world. Most refugees flee because of war. Some flee because of their political or religious beliefs, or because of their sexual orientation.  More than half (58%) of the refugees resettled to Tennessee in FY 2019 were from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

View our archive of arrival reports and other data we compile.

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How do refugees get to the United States?

After the individual flees their home country they can report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States Embassy, or an authorized non-governmental organization. That entity can refer the case to a Resettlement Support Center (RSC).

The RSCs fall under the purview of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), an office of the United States Department of State. The RSC is responsible for preparing the refugee’s case file including the collection of information for the security clearance process.

The RSC presents the case file to the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS).3

The screening process is taking place at this point, including coordination between National Counterterrorism Center/Intelligence Community, FBI, DHS, and State Department.3

An officer from DHS’ United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) interviews the refugee and adjudicates the case, and if they approve the case, the refugee undergoes medical exams.4

The case is assigned to a resettlement agency, one of nine voluntary agencies (VOLAGs)5 responsible for the initial reception and placement of refugees to the United States.6

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) makes travel arrangements. The refugee will be issued a promissory note requiring the travel costs be paid back in full to the United States.6

3) For more detailed information on the screening process: uscis.gov/refugeescreening obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states
4) uscis.gov/refugeescreening#USCIS
5) acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/voluntary-agencies
6) state.gov/refugee-admissions/reception-and-placement/

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Are refugees screened?

Refugees are the most rigorously screened visitors to the United States. We’ve put together a collection of resources in this blog post.

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Who works with refugees in Tennessee?

There are four resettlement agencies in Tennessee: Catholic Charities and Nashville International Center for Empowerment in Nashville, World Relief in Memphis, and Bridge Refugee Services with offices in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Other agencies receive funding from TOR to work with refugees, but do not resettle them. There are countless other religious and community groups, non-profit organizations, and service agencies who serve refugees. Learn more about our partners.

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Do refugees choose their resettlement city?

No. Once the refugee has been cleared for travel to the United States , their biographic information and case records are sent to the nine VOLAGs, who meet weekly to determine which resettlement agency will resettle the refugee and where they will be resettled in the United States.7 These decisions are made before the refugee arrives in the United States.

The VOLAGs consider the specific needs of each case and the resources available in the local community when determining the placement of the refugee. For example, where the refugee has family, any specific medical needs, the degree to which the refugee’s ethnicity is already established in a community, availability of housing and employment, and the capacity to welcome and serve refugees speaking a particular language.7

Refugees, like anyone else, are allowed to move at any point after they arrive in the United States.

7) state.gov/refugee-admissions/reception-and-placement/

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How many refugees come to Tennessee and where do they live?

In FY 2019, 692 refugees and SIVs were resettled to Tennessee. The majority were resettled in Davidson county (410). Knox county received 101 individuals, Hamilton county received 82, and Shelby county received 43.

View our archive of arrival reports and other data we compile by federal fiscal year.

An interactive refugee arrival map is available here. Data is available on state and calendar year of arrival as well as country of origin. This data includes only refugee data, and not that of SIV arrivals.

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Are refugees allowed to work?

Yes, refugees are authorized for employment immediately.8

8) state.gov/refugee-admissions/reception-and-placement/

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Who pays for refugee resettlement in Tennessee?

The airfare to the United States is a loan which the refugee must pay back.9 Most of the funds for services come from the Federal government, either through the Department of State via the agency’s national organizations;10 the Department of State’s Reception and Placement  program;11 or through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an office of the Administration for Children and Families, under the United States Department of Health and Human Services.12 The agencies directly serving refugees also seek out private funding and gifts in kind. State and local communities contribute to some degree, as they would for any other resident, through available resources and services for which the individuals and families qualify.

9) state.gov/refugee-admissions/reception-and-placement/
10) acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/matching-grants
11) state.gov/refugee-admissions/reception-and-placement/
12) acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/orr/orr_fact_sheet_benefits_at_a_glance.pdf

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How can I help?

Refugee resettlement requires the whole community. If you’re interested in volunteering, giving your time or resources, or speaking up on behalf of refugees, one of the refugee serving agencies across the state would be happy to hear from you. Read this blog post about how to help, and get in touch with one of our partners.

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