“Vetting” Syrian refugees: the misplaced concern

Refugees go through a strict vetting process.
Refugees go through a strict vetting process.

Nearly every time I watch a discussion about Syrian refugees on television, either the host or the politician being interviewed says something along the lines of “we would love to help, but we have to vet these people first.”

Of course, there are a couple of politicians like Chris Christie who simply say they don’t want the U.S. to accept any refugees, not even a five-year-old Syrian orphan. But most don’t want to appear heartless; they just want a little vetting.

What is rarely discussed beyond the elite news sources like the New York Times and NPR, is the amount of vetting that each Syrian refugee goes through. A new report from Human Rights First explains the extensive vetting of the Syrians:

“An extensive array of data is provided to, and obtained by, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security prior to its decision to resettle a Syrian refugee to the United States. This information comes from multiple sources including UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], multiple interviews over a period of years with the refugees, biometric data, documentary materials relating to the specific individuals, and a range of U.S. and international intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

Before most Syrians are even referred for possible refugee resettlement they have already been extensively interviewed by the UNHCR in Turkey or in other front line countries. Most of those screened by the United Nations are women or children. Only 2% are single men, many of whom were being persecuted by ISIS because of their sexual orientation.

The person is then referred to State Department U.S. Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) where their refugee claim and their background are investigated. Interviews lasting as long as three hours are conducted with each applicant for refugee status. Biometrics are collected and background checks are run. Here is how the report describes the depth of the background check:

“Biographic checks against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)—which includes watch-list information—are initiated at the time of prescreening by the State Department’s Resettlement Support Center staff. CLASS contains information from a variety of intelligence and law enforcement sources, including TECS (formerly the Treasury Enforcement Communication System), the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Interpol. Interpol has extensive intelligence and law enforcement databases, which include information from 50 countries as well as specific databases relating to suspected terrorists, foreign fighters and stolen, lost and blank passports. Following this initial pre-screening, the United States continuously vets applicants throughout the application process, up to and even beyond their arrival for resettlement.

The U.S. gathers documentation from these refugee applicants including their passports, birth certificates, and other documentary evidence. These documents are then tested for authenticity down to the type of paper and ink used. The U.S. then accesses Interpol’s database of lost and stolen passports from 170 countries to identify potentially altered documents.

The information gathered is sent to Washington where a team of experts pre-vets the case before a Department of Homeland Security officer conducts another in-depth interview with the applicant for refugee status. A three to five hour interview takes place to assess the credibility of the applicant and to determine whether the applicant poses any security threat. The officer then makes a preliminary recommendation on the case, which is then reviewed by a supervisor. If the application is recommended for approval, another round of security checks is begun. Here is the extent of the intelligence review:

“These include checks conducted by the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI Terrorist Screening Center, Department of Defense Biometric Screening and the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System. The clearance process checks against watch list information as well as broader domestic and international intelligence community holdings from Interpol. (Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon are all Interpol members.) Interpol’s Foreign Terrorist Fighter database—which is supported by a working group that includes Turkey and the United States—includes detailed identity particulars and profiles of individuals travelling to or from Syria and Iraq, comprised of information provided by more than 50 countries. Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database includes details of nearly 54 million stolen, lost, blank, and other documents from 170 countries—including from Syria and Iraq.  As of September 2015, Interpol’s database of suspected terrorists included more than 10,000 names. The U.S. National Central Bureau (NCB) for Interpol is run by DHS and DOJ, which manage U.S. access to the organization’s extensive criminal and terrorism databases, as well as its lost and stolen passport database. In addition to Interpol, the United States maintains direct intelligence relationships with countries like Jordan, where refugees have been living for years.”

When the refugee is about to come to the United States, the person again goes through security clearances and he/she is inspected again when he/she arrives in the United States. At any point, the application to come as a refugee can be denied if there is any reason to believe that the person is a danger to this country.

Far from not being properly vetted, Syrian refugees are among the most vetted people in the United States.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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