POLITICS
11/17/2015 04:10 pm ET

Refugee Screenings Are More Intensive Than Some Politicians Would Have You Think

The Obama administration is pushing back on claims it doesn't vet refugees.

WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress and half of the nation's governors have said the U.S. shouldn't accept Syrian refugees in light of terrorist attacks on Paris last week, based on what they see as an inadequate or inexistent screening process.

Now the Obama administration is doing damage control. Senior administration officials said Tuesday they're working quickly to educate the public and politicians, as members of Congress plan to try to block the U.S. from resettling Syrian refugees and more than half of governors say they won't accept them into their states. 

Refugees go through multiple security checks before being given refugee status in the U.S.
Santi Palacios/Associated Press
Refugees go through multiple security checks before being given refugee status in the U.S.

The officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said they think people may be unaware of how the screening system works -- already an 18- to 24-month process on average that includes biometric and biographic tests, interviews and other vetting procedures by a number of U.S. security agencies.

"A lot of questions we're getting are from members who are just learning about the program for the first time," one official said. "And I also think there's a lot of misinformation out there."

Case in point: the claim that the U.S. leaves all vetting to the United Nations refugee agency, also called UNHCR.

"The U.N. is doing the vetting," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) told reporters on Tuesday. "That's insufficient."

That's not the case. It's true that UNHCR is often involved -- although not always -- in referring refugees to the U.S. Before doing so, UNHCR goes through its own vetting process, which determines whether an individual should be classified as a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR identifies refugees around the world. 
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
UNHCR identifies refugees around the world. 

Once they're referred to the U.S., the government begins its own vetting process. Though there's discussion, even among Democrats, on whether it can be improved, it is still extensive. And officials said they're continually working to strengthen it. Here's how it works:

Information-gathering

Overseas Resettlement Support Centers managed by the State Department start to gather information. They collect biographical information from applicants and take their fingerprints. This information is used later to check their identities, whether their stories are consistent and whether they pose a security threat.

Interviews

Next, the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts in-person interviews with applicants, most often in Amman, Jordan, or Istanbul, Turkey. The USCIS interviewers go through eight weeks of training, or more if they're going to work with Iraqi or Syrian refugee applicants, according to a second administration official.

Medical tests

Refugee applicants go through a health screening to ensure they don't have a contagious medical condition, such as tuberculosis, or other health problems that require follow-up screening once they arrived in the U.S. 

Checking information

This is a challenging part. The Departments of State and Homeland Security work with the FBI, the Department of Defense and other security agencies to check whether the information provided by applicants is true.

The government compares their stories and information with the file from UNHCR, to see if they've been consistent. Some cases are flagged for USCIS's Fraud Detection and National Security Unit for individualized screening, such as looking at whether their stories correlate with what was happening on the ground at the time, the second official said. They similarly investigate the explanations people provide if they do not have identification.

Syrians also go through an enhanced review with USCIS refugee specialists in the U.S., the second official said. 

Many refugees live in camps in Jordan after fleeing Syria.
Raad Adayleh/Associated Press
Many refugees live in camps in Jordan after fleeing Syria.

Database checks

The government runs information through databases, including one at the FBI, to see if applicants have a U.S. criminal history, although, as FBI Director James Comey noted and Republicans have frequently pointed out since, "If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home," but if there's no record of them, nothing will show up.

Officials also check a database at DHS to see if they've previously applied to come to the U.S. The second official said the latter wouldn't disqualify them for coming but would ensure they find past applications, which they could check for consistency on names and other information.

A third official said the U.S. benefitted from its experience screening Iraqi refugees, a similarly difficult process given ongoing conflicts there. They also vet many other visitors to the U.S. -- it's something they do a lot.  

Approval

If a person qualifies as a refugee -- to be deemed appropriate for resettlement and to pass screenings -- the government asks a resettlement agency in the U.S. to sponsor them. The second official said the approval rate for refugees is currently a little over 50 percent, although the other half includes cases that are still pending.

Those approved go through a cultural orientation before going to the U.S.

Arriving

Once a refugee gets to the U.S., a local resettlement group picks them up from the airport, finds them an apartment and furnishes it. It also helps them apply for a job and get the government assistance they are eligible for. Refugees can move freely, although they might not be eligible for certain benefits in some states.

States cannot determine the federal government's refugee policy or prevent people from moving to their states, but governors can make Syrians feel unwelcome -- which would break down a system that relies on community support.

"This is a program that is very much dependent on the support of local communities," the first official said, adding later, "We don't want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcomed."

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