Homeland Security describes ‘intense’ vetting for refugees

As anti-refugee sentiment rises, experts cite U.S. already has stringent background checks.

Refugees from Syria and Iraq undergo the “the most intense” vetting process any immigrant faces, federal officials said in a conference call Monday.

Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described a painstaking, layered process involving reviews by multiple agencies, international, federal and local.

“Refugees seeking admission to the United States undergo the most intense security vetting of any immigrants seeking admission to our nation,” Mayorkas said.

The conference call came as anti-refugee skepticism is rising across the country. On the presidential campaign trail on Nov. 16, Ohio Gov. John Kasich echoed fellow GOP primary candidates, urging the government not to stop resettling Syrian refugees to Ohio. Kasich joins 30 other GOP governors who oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states.

“You know we understand these people are in trouble, but think about putting somebody on our street or in our town or in our country doing us harm,” Kasich said at the National Press Club. “We just have to be very careful for our friends, our neighbors and our country.”

Since Jan. 1, 1,925 Syrians have been placed in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State. In Ohio, only 85 Syrians have been placed, including 54 refugees in Toledo, 15 in Cleveland, a family of nine in Cincinnati and seven in Columbus.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, wrote to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, demanding she rescind her invitation to the federal government to move Syrian refugees to the area.

“While Dayton is a welcoming city, we must prioritize the safety and security of our community in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris,” Turner said.

Refugees are screened first by the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, also known as UNHCR, Mayorkas said. These U.N. personnel are trained in U.S. laws and security requirements, he said.

Refugees are interviewed on conditions in their home country and their claims of persecution.

That work results in a list sent to the State Department on refugees who are deemed “preliminarily eligible,” Mayorkas said. Then State contracts with local resettlement organizations, including faith-based local offices, to conduct a second interview of the refugee applicant.

“For every single refugee applicant, the Department of State then starts a security check using its consular lookout and support system database,” Mayorkas said.

The focus at this level is any criminal and immigration history, links to terrorism and any prior visa dispositions. State does not rely on the U.N. or local resettlement officials to conduct that database check, he said.

For single men from Syria or Iraq between ages of 16 and 50, there is an additional security check, Mayorkas said. That check pores through law enforcement and intelligence databases. Since Jan. 1, 9,289 Iraq refugees have come to the United States, including 298 refugees in Ohio, according to the State Department.

“If and only if a refugee applicant passes Department of State security checks — after already having been vetted by UNHCR — then the refugee’s package of information is prepared for review by the Department of Homeland Security,” Mayorkas said.

More reviews follow, including by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

An in-person interview is taken after photographs and fingerprints are taken from an applicant, he said. Those prints and photos are run through additional Department of Defense and FBI databases, Mayorkas said.

There is also a medical screening and confirmation of sponsorship for the refugee in the U.S.

The whole process on average takes 18 to 24 months, Mayorkas said.

Eight days before arrival in the U.S., the refugee’s biographical information is then screened against additional databases by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

And there’s a final check once the refugee arrives in the country, Mayorkas said.

“If a security-related issue arises even at this late stage, the refugee may be denied admission,” he said.

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