Despite the current hostile political climate towards refugees, the Obama Administration has pledged to resettle 110,000 refugees over the next twelve months—a pledge that we enthusiastically support.
To diffuse some political tension and encourage resettlement initiatives, it’s important to review the stringent security processes used to vet refugees coming to the United States.
As one of the loudest critics of the screening process, Donald Trump often cites specious security concerns as justification for promoting policies that seek to block refugee resettlement. These anti-refugee sentiments demonstrate a sorely incomplete understanding of the rigorous screening process refugees must pass to gain entry. As the White House explains, “refugees undergo more rigorous screening than anyone else we allow into the United States.”
So, what does the screening actually entail?
People fleeing their homes across the globe must first be approved by the United Nations or a reputable international organization to be declared eligible for refugee status. Less than 1 percent of those refugees will ever qualify for resettlement in a new nation. And that’s only the very beginning of a process that lasts between 18 and 24 months.
Eligible refugees are then referred to countries with resettlement programs. Those refugees who are initially eligible to come to the United States must clear several background checks and submit documents for review via multiple agencies, such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department.
Refugees then undergo multiple interviews and security checks. The interviews are conducted by highly trained officers, who, in addition to all of the standard training required of a Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) officer, must undergo months of specialized Refugee Corps training. Rigorous pre-departure training helps prepare these interviewers for the specific country where they’ll be interviewing refugees.
Refugees from Syria actually have additional clearance processes, subjecting them to the highest possible level of scrutiny for any entrant coming to the United States.
No non-citizen is entitled entry into the United States. Only after it is concretely established that an individual is in fact a refugee, and poses no security risk, can he or she be allowed into the country. The refugees bears the burden to prove that they are not threats.
In FY 2016, hundreds of eligible Syrian refugees were denied entry into the U.S. This doesn’t mean they aroused suspicion of terrorism. It simply indicates that they were unable to produce the adequate documentation and proof of their identity needed to meet our stringent refugee process. Administration officials have revealed 7% of referred Syrian refugees were denied, and 13% were put on hold until more information could be accessed. This is the process at work.
The refugee screening procedure continues to improve. Far from the unchanging and outdated system portrayed by critics, it is incredibly advanced. New Interagency Checks (IACs) allow federal agencies to collaborate more effectively to tighten information-sharing. And the concerns regarding Syrian resettlement lead to the additional steps being added to the process to protect against fraud. To put it simply: the system is robust, and it only continues to get better.
This rigorous process is why Secretary Simon Henshaw expressed the State Department’s view that security and refugee resettlement are not competing goals—a sentiment supported by many national security officials in America.
These officials—such as Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger, David Petraeus, George Schultz, and many others—recently came together, not only to affirm that the screening process is “robust and thorough,” but also to confirm that “resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests.” They added that, “categorically refusing to take [refugees] only feeds the narrative of ISIS… and would undermine our core objective of combating terrorism.”
Aside from providing proof that our national security measures are adequate, this response struck a deeper chord. These esteemed public servants wrote that keeping refugees out of the United States “would be contrary to our nation’s traditions of openness and inclusivity.”
The reality of refugee flows–especially Syrian refugees–is far from the warped depiction that Donald Trump and others put forth. Trump and his ilk stoke fear by conflating refugees with terrorists. But the fact is that refugees are fleeing terrorism, not perpetuating it.
The refugee screening process is strong and constantly improving. It is essential to understand that we can continue to safely bring refugees to America, offering them the opportunity for a new life free from war and persecution.