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The Four Most Unlikely Ways a Refugee Becomes a U.S. Citizen

Samy may have just built himself a house inside a refugee camp, but he’s not planning on staying long. No, he’s looking to run through the labyrinthine process that takes him from refugee to permanent U.S. resident as quickly as possible. So he set up shop in the camp to increase his chances of getting noticed by the Thai government, which is a—if not the—key to his getting out.

Samy is trying to get Thailand to declare him a "displaced person," which then lets the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recognize him as a refugee. Before those two things happen, it’s exceedingly difficult to see how Samy can make it to the United States. At least, so says the conventional wisdom.

But if Samy really is stuck waiting around until the government gets its act together—considering Thailand has recently been plunged into chaos, and refugee affairs are likely as much of a priority as reupholstering the furniture in the capital—then maybe it’s time we started bucking that conventional wisdom.

Upon my editor's recommendation, I contacted Marina Sharpe, a lawyer who has long dealt with refugee affairs and helped found Asylum Access. Sharpe revealed some intriguing alternative courses of action to explore while we’re waiting for Samy to acquire that elusive refugee status. We also discussed the most unlikely ways that a refugee can become a permanent U.S. resident.

1. Enter the Green Card Lottery

“It’s a long shot, but it’s real, and people win it,” Sharpe says of the Diversity Immigrant Visa, better known as the U.S. Green Card Lottery. Yes, we can get Samy to apply for a green card in the United States in the lottery, as millions of hopeful would-be immigrants around the world do every year. “It’s one of those things that seems like such a long shot that people don’t enter it, and maybe that thinking is preventing people from entering it,” she says. Long shot is right: Only 0.58 percent of the 2.5 million Asians who entered the lottery in 2008 were chosen.

2. Appealing to the Embassy

It turns out that there’s still be a shot we can get the UNHCR to mandate Samy’s status as a refugee, in effect overriding the lethargic Thai authority. This involves appealing to the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, and seeing if Samy’s case can be negotiated. I would then deal with the International Organization for Migration, which would handle the nuts and bolts of processing the case. Consider this on the top of my to-do list.

3. The One-Way Ticket to America

This is perhaps the longest shot, but it’s also extremely interesting. Here’s how it works: If Samy were to somehow make it to the United States, say, by flying into an international airport, he could then declare himself an asylum seeker on the spot. Sharpe explains: “Under international law, they can’t turn him away —that’s the good news. The bad news is he’ll probably be put in an immigration detention center. So he’d be put into jail while his claim was adjudicated.” Which is a problem, but not necessarily an insurmountable one.

Sharpe tells me that there are programs, like Human Rights First, that pair junior corporate lawyers with a conscience with asylum seekers. (Sharpe adds that when she was working at a corporate lawfirm, she was paired with a refugee from Cameroon, who she helped get status.)

It turns out that once you get refugee status, you get permanent residence relatively quickly. "You just fill out a couple forms and get a green card." After a few years with a green card, refugees are then eligible to become citizens.

The tricky part, of course, is getting Samy here in the first place. He doesn’t have a passport, much less a visa. And airlines won’t let passengers on board without one because they don’t want to pay to fly someone back if he’s denied entry into the country, which is what would happen. Sharpe suggests I find out if there’s an airline that would be willing to take a refugee one way without a visa, knowing that he planned on declaring himself an asylum seeker when he got to his destination. It's not against the law for airlines to let him on board, so they may be open to a special arrangement.

4. O, Canada!

This last option wouldn’t result in U.S. citizenship—but it would be almost as good. It turns out that the Canadian government has some entirely different methods of helping refugees and persecuted people. One is ressetlement through Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds clause in Canada's immigration law, which, Sharpe tells me, is “completely outside the sphere of refugees—it’s a sponsorship program.”

That means two important things: First, that organizations or groups of people can chose to sponsor particular refugees’ resettlement efforts. If a group of Canadians can prove they can support a refugee financially, they can petition the government directly to get that person into Canada. No such program exists in the United States. Second, the process doesn’t require that the person in question be officially recognized as a refugee; any persecuted person can qualify.

For Samy, that might mean no more waiting for the Thai government to give him refugee status; he could go directly to Canada if he were approved by the government. This is no pie-in-the-sky option either. I’ve told you before that Samy is resourceful. Well, a while back, Samy met a Canadian who may be able to help him out. His name is David, and he may be Samy’s best bet to leave the life of a refugee behind.

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