In two words: It isn’t.
All refugees taken in by the U.S. undergo extensive background checks. The small number from Syria are subject to additional layers of security screening.
“Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees are the single most heavily screened and vetted,” explains Jana Mason, a senior adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Here are answers to some of your questions about how the program works.
How are Syrian refugees referred to the U.S.?
The process begins with a referral from UNHCR. The U.N.’s refugee agency is responsible for registering some 15 million asylum seekers around the world, and providing aid and assistance until they are resettled abroad or (more likely) returned home once conditions ease. The registration process includes in-depth refugee interviews, home country reference checks and biological screening such as iris scans. Military combatants are weeded out.
Among those who pass background checks, a small percentage are referred for overseas resettlement based on criteria designed to determine the most vulnerable cases. This group may include survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, families with multiple children and a female head of household.
What happens once a refugee is referred to the U.S.?
Our government performs its own intensive screening, a process that includes consultation from nine different government agencies. They meet weekly to review a refugee’s case file and, if appropriate, determine where in the U.S. the individual should be placed. When choosing where to place a refugee, officials consider factors such as existing family in the U.S., employment possibilities and special factors like access to needed medical treatment.
How do we know the refugees aren’t terrorists?
Every refugee goes through an intensive vetting process, but the precautions are increased for Syrians. Multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies perform “the most rigorous screening of any traveler to the U.S.,” says a senior administration official. Among the agencies involved are the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS officer conducts in-person interviews with every applicant. Biometric information such as fingerprints are collected and matched against criminal databases. Biographical information such as past visa applications are scrutinized to ensure the applicant’s story coheres.
Refugees from every country face the toughest screening process of any class of migrants to the U.S. The belief that the FBI is unable to properly vet Syrian refugees comes from a congressional hearing last month where FBI director James Comey said it would be “challenging” to vet Syrian refugees because of the lack of data sets available to the FBI—things like local police records, information from intelligence services and the like—in Syria. Comey did not appear to say it was impossible, just challenging.
By comparison, while Somalia topped the failed/fragile state index from 2008 to 2013 (suggesting little infrastructure on the ground that could offer the kinds of datasets that make the FBI’s vetting job easier), the U.S. accepted nearly 30,000 refugees from Somalia in that time. Somalia is home to Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab, which has launched multiple attacks in Kenya and called earlier this year for terrorist attacks against malls in the U.S. In fact, in 2013, the U.S. accepted about 34,000 refugees (more than half from Iraq) from countries ranking higher on the failed state index than Syria.
While the FBI’s common-sense acknowledgement it would be “challenging” to vet Syrian refugees is a primary argument deployed against the US accepting more of them, the FBI is not the only agency responsible for vetting refugees.
[A]ll refugees of all nationalities considered for admission to the United States undergo intensive security screening, and this involves multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies. And we do this to ensure that those admitted are not known to pose a threat to our country. The safeguards that are used include biometrics, or fingerprint and biographic checks, and a lengthy in-person overseas interview that is carried out by specially trained DHS – Department of Homeland Security – officers, who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States.
Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. And we continue to examine options for further enhancement for screening refugees, the details of which are classified. But the classified details are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.
[T]his is a part of our program that is extremely interdisciplinary. It’s a lot of different federal agencies. So on the operational front, while the State Department and USCIS take the lead overseas, when it comes to doing the security vetting we have law enforcement and intelligence community colleagues who are really integral parts of the program.
I should also mention that these security checks have been enhanced over the years and we expect that they’ll continue to be enhanced as we’re able to identify new opportunities. But to a large extent, I would say that with the Syrian program, we’ve benefited from our years of experience in vetting Iraqi refugee applicants. And so the partnerships we have today and the security checks we have today really are more robust because of the experience that we’ve had since the beginning of large-scale Iraqi processing in 2007.
So refugee applicants of all nationalities go through both biographic – that’s name and date of birth and other biographic elements – and also biometric security checks. So we check fingerprints for all refugee applicants. Collecting that information and coordinating those checks is a shared responsibility between the Department of State and DHS. And then, as I mentioned, the – it’s other agencies within the federal government, including the FBI, the Department of Defense, and others, who actually vet the information of the refugee applicants against those other holdings.
So the biographic checks, typically they go through something called the CLASS system, which is the Consular Lookout System. It’s coordinated by the FBI. Some checks go through a higher – some applicants go through a higher-level name check that we call the Security Advisory Opinion. They also go through something we call the interagency check, which checks against two different partners to see if there’s any information there. And I think our colleague number three will talk about that check in a little bit more detail.
With respect to the biometric checks, there really are sort of three partners behind the biometric checks. So we check against FBI holdings – so if anyone had been in the United States, if a criminal record, for example, had been committed in – been recorded in the United States, we would have that information. The DHS also coordinates another set of biometric holdings, which are not necessarily criminal, but have various types of civil information. So if a refugee applicant had applied, for example, for a visa overseas, gone to a U.S. embassy or consulate, their biometric could be captured at that time. That’s not necessarily derogatory, but it gives us information about whether the person’s been consistent in terms of their identity, the location, their nationality, so that’s information that we’re very interested in. And then the third piece is the Department of Defense. We check against some Department of Defense biometric holdings as well.
What I’ve been describing up till now are checks that are for refugee applicants of all nationalities, but with the Syria program we also instituted an additional set of screening that we call the Syria Enhanced Review. So for Syrian refugee applicants, all of those cases are reviewed at headquarters by refugee specialists ahead of time. And there’s a file that’s already been created by virtue of their registration with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and through their first administrative contact with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. So there’s information there about where the refugee has come from, what caused him or her to flee, what their experience was. And depending on what we see in that file, we review certain cases with national security indicators to a special part of our agency – our Fraud Detection and National Security unit. And they can do individualized research using classified and unclassified records and give – prepare information back for the individual refugee adjudicator that’s individualized to that case.
So just to give a sort of example, if somebody says, “I was at a demonstration in Aleppo and the soldiers came, or the police came, and something happened,” we can actually look back and see was that consistent with known country conditions at that time in that place, and we can follow up lines of questioning that would be appropriate under those circumstances.
The other thing I wanted to emphasize is that every refugee applicant is interviewed in person by specially trained staff. The basic training we have for refugee officers is eight weeks, which is teaching them protection law but it’s also teaching them how to elicit testimony, how to test credibility. And for applicants who are working particularly with Iraqi and Syrian refugee applicants, they receive specialized training before they interview that type of case. And we have colleagues from the law enforcement and intelligence community join us for that training. So they participate in that training of our adjudicators.
In addition, if there’s anything that we identify in the interview that we think needs some individualized follow-up, we have those relationships with the law enforcement and intelligence communities that we can circle back and talk to them if there are issues that arise in an individual interview.
So we conduct non-adversarial interviews with refugee applicants. We’re working with Syrians mainly in Amman, Jordan and in Istanbul, Turkey, to a smaller extent in Cairo; we’ll soon resume processing in Lebanon, and a smattering in other locations.
A State Department spokesman stated in September they are ready for “more than 10,000 people,” easily covering Syrians and refugees from other areas.
The idea expressed often in recent days, “These refugees aren’t being screened” is inaccurate. Those whose concern is “making sure,” should have their minds set at ease. A brief summary of the process:
- Out of millions of refugees a very few are selected for possible refugee status in the United States.
- These who are pre-selected are kept on-site (in the refugee camp where he or she currently lives) until investigations/interviews by the United States begins.
- Biometric and biographic data are used to help build a file.
- Multiple interviews by specially trained case workers examine every aspect of the applicants story.
- Multiple United States agencies including DoD, Homeland Security, State, Fraud Detection and National Security Unit (at State), FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and (though not mentioned, count on it) the CIA, provide resources for evaluation.
- Refugees applying to come to America then wait 18 – 24 months for approval. Approval is contingent on a place to live (family, friends, or a place secured by a stateside agency), job prospects, and, sometimes, availability of specific medical care.
The Economist recently reported nearly 750,000 refugees have come to American since 9/11. Many of these are from war-torn, majority Muslim countries. To date, only two of these have been arrested on terrorist charges (two Iraqis in Kentucky were aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq).
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