By Lara Kajs
A few weeks ago, the United States accepted the 10,000th Syrian refugee, fulfilling the original commitment.
While some voices are calling to ‘keep America safe’ by denying entrance to anymore refugees, others demand that America accepts more Syrians in need for resettlement. When it comes to the Syrian refugee population, there is a strong debate as to whether or not there are enough security steps in the process to satisfy admission to the U.S.
The vetting, or screening process for refugees to enter the United States is the most rigorous system on the planet. While some may have a vision of an individual walking up to a counter, filling out some papers and getting on a plane or boat to the U.S., the fact is that to be granted admission includes a multi-organizational security clearance, multiple interviews, biometric scans, fingerprints, medical clearance and cultural orientation – all of which takes approximately two years (in some cases longer) to complete. What’s more, less than 1% of the global refugee population, (currently at 65 million) makes it beyond the first step. In short, there is no fast-tracking pathway for refugees to the U.S.
The first stop for persons declaring refugee status is to present themselves to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Since it is not possible for individuals to apply directly to the U.S. as a refugee for resettlement, the individual must be referred by the United Nations. UNHCR conducts the initial assessment which includes interviews to determine the need for resettlement, collecting identifying documents and biodata. Refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries require an extra layer of security: biometric iris scans. The process is very selective. Priority is usually given to women and children and the candidates must be outside of their home country. UNHCR evaluates the cases and presents the candidates with the strongest need for protection and resettlement in the U.S., as per the criteria in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to proceed to the next level.
In context, refugees do not wake up one day and decide to leave their homes and choose displacement over peace and joy. In the majority of cases they have experienced unimaginable persecution and violence as a result of war and conflict. The airwaves and papers are flooded with images of bloodied children in shock and terror that no one should have to experience. They flee because they are running for their lives. It is a matter of safety and survival.
Once the refugees are cleared by UNHCR, they advance to one of the nine federally funded Resettlement Support Centers, where the applicant’s file is created, documents are collected and the security check process begins. The candidate is screened by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center and Intelligence Community and the State Department. Applicants are interviewed and re-interviewed and the information given is subject to enhanced scrutiny. These entities look for any information that determines if the applicant is a threat to U.S. security including connections to known terrorists and outstanding warrants or criminal violations.
For Syrian refugees, an additional step is in place which includes a review by the USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate. Throughout the entire process, the applicant’s information is checked and re-checked multiple times. If at any time new information is introduced, there is further investigation. If the individual is deemed a threat to national security at any time, the process ends.
Whereas in the past a chief complaint regarding U.S. national security included the lack of inter-agency cooperation, in the case of refugees, especially Syrians, there seems to be full cooperation and collaboration between agencies.
Given the detailed and lengthy process involved in vetting refugees – even from Syria and the Middle East – it is unreasonable that more security steps would provide any different outcome, but would simply prolong the wait for millions of people who are in distress and in need of resettlement. Refugees are not candy and they are not peanuts. They are human beings and they deserve to have a life that is free from persecution, terror and conflict.
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