Vetting the refugees: how it really works


U.S. government graphic shows nine steps in multi-year vetting process. Click here to view complete graphic. 

St. Patrick’s Catholic parish in Hudson, Wisconsin was asked to help receive five Syrian refugee families, a total of 11 adults and 15 children. Hatemongers stirred up opposition, and the church and community divided. (Read that sad story here, as reported by MPR.) In Hudson, and across the country, hatemongers stir up fear against refugees, saying that the government doesn’t vet their applications well enough. Truth – political refugees get screened by multiple government agencies and Syrian refugees get the most stringent vetting anyone has been able to devise. Here’s how it works.

After escaping their home countries (Syria or elsewhere), refugees apply to the U.N. refugee agency. According to an official U.S. government description, the UNHCR:

  • Collects identifying documents
  • Performs initial assessment
    • Collects biodata: name, address, birthday, place of birth, etc.
    • Collects biometrics: iris scans (for Syrians, and other refugee populations in the Middle East)
  • Interviews applicants to confirm refugee status and the need for resettlement
    • Initial information checked again
  • Only applicants who are strong candidates for resettlement move forward (less than 1% of global refugee population).

By this time, the refugees have likely spent more than a year in the refugee camp. At this point, after the U.N. screening, some of this less-than-one-percent get referred for resettlement – a chance to leave the refugee camp and go to find a home in some other country, including the United States. As Time Magazine reports, these referrals are “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.”

That’s only the beginning of the screening process. Once a refugee or refugee family is vetted by the UNHCR and referred to the United States for possible resettlement here, the whole vetting process starts again. Now they are screened by nine separate U.S. agencies, including the State Department, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. screening takes at least a year and a half to two years, often longer. This screening includes more biometric checks, multiple interviews, and what the government calls “recurrent vetting:”

“Recurrent vetting: Throughout this process, pending applications continue to be checked against terrorist databases, to ensure new, relevant terrorism information has not come to light. If a match is found, that case is paused for further review. Applicants who continue to have no flags continue the process. If there is doubt about whether an applicant poses a security risk, they will not be admitted.”

If, at any point, security concerns are raised, the U.S. government ends the process and refuses resettlement. If the refugees pass all of the screening and vetting, then they receive a final health screening. If they pass the health screening, then they go into orientation.

The final step: referral to voluntary agencies that arrange for resettlement assistance.

The conservative Heritage Foundation says, “The U.S. refugee system can be, should be, and is being picky at who we allow to enter the U.S. as a refugee.”

But that’s not enough for the hatemongers. They want no Syrian or Muslim refugees at all to ever be admitted to the United States.

The five Syrian families won’t be coming to Hudson. The federal government decided to send them somewhere else. Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan resettlement program coordinator Mary Flynn told MPR that the local opposition wasn’t a factor in her decision to send the refugees somewhere else in Wisconsin. Somewhere unidentified.

“I don’t mean to be evasive,” Flynn said. “But I think that considering the conversation that’s been had about these cases, I think that they deserve a resting period right now. I don’t know how else to put it.”

I know one other way to put it. I’d say that fear and hate won again.





Filed under immigration, refugees

3 responses to “Vetting the refugees: how it really works

  1. Pingback: Fact-checking the news: January 10 | News Day

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