Refugee Vetting is Already Thorough

In keeping with its responsibilities as a world power, the United States of America is a signatory to UN conventions committing the US to helping resettle those who can no longer live in their home country and become refugees. This process, in which the US vets individuals seeking refugee status and then helps them find homes when their old ones are no longer safe or sustainable, has been severely disrupted due to the actions of President Trump and his administration, including the two Muslim ban Executive Orders.

I interviewed Joel Colf, a Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, which specifically represents about 200 workers within the Refugee Admission Program of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Colf has been working for the refugee program for around a decade, under the last three presidents, and is familiar with previous transition processes between administrations. He wants to make the refugee mission of the USCIS more public, because he thinks the American people deserve to know exactly how the refugee process works.

Mr. Colf has witnessed the transition of power at the USCIS for over a decade. He sees how the program has been shaped by world events, and by the presidents’ differing agendas. “After 9/11, the number of refugees allowed in plunged,” he said. “In 2009, the President started raising the numbers to 70,000, then 80,000. This year, the goal was to be letting in 110,000, but the new administration changed that back down to 50,000. Since we were interviewing with consideration to the new number, our quota for the year is already almost full.” As the refugee interview program has been suspended for the time being, Colf says that DHS agents have been reassigned to other tasks, such as interviewing asylum seekers along the Mexican border.

The global organization that oversees refugee programs (and is part of the process of granting refugee status) is the The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They work with refugee agencies around the globe, to help coordinate relief efforts.  Within the United States, refugees are overseen by 3 different government departments. The Department of State houses the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. They set the interview schedules, arrange access for applicants, and deal with relevant embassies. The responsibility for granting refugee status into the US (and all the security checks and interviews pursuant to that goal) is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. Finally, the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Health and Human Services Department oversees refugees once they are settled within American communities.

The process to resettle in America is an arduous one. First, an applicant must be declared a refugee by the UN, through a separate registration and interview process. The next step is a referral, with fewer than 1% of all applicants making it into the US system. From this point on, applicants wait in refugee camps to be vetted–a process which can take years. The next steps are multiple levels of background checks and biometric screenings through FBI, CIA, and DHS databases. Applicants are also checked against State and Defense Department records. Those who make it through those checks receive a case review at Immigration Headquarters, and then an extensive interview in person with a DHS officer. (These interviews, which are conducted by the employees Joel Colf represents, are specifically what President Trump halted with his first Executive Order on Immigration.) After the that, the process is over–except for Homeland Security approval, cultural orientation, disease screenings, the physical resettlement process (assisted by resettlement agencies), a security check before leaving for the US, and a final security check at the airport upon arrival in America.

The interview itself is a combination of reviewing the legal validity of the refugee application and admissibility, detecting and preventing fraud, and security checks. Interviewers examine the circumstances of the application in depth, putting a significant portion of the applicant’s entire life under the microscope for intense scrutiny, examining the application for the slightest discrepancy or inaccuracy.

The global number of refugees is over 60 million, the highest it’s been since World War 2. “I don’t know if many people are aware of how serious this problem is, worldwide,” Colf told me. “Syria is a massive crisis, but there are also sustained problems elsewhere, in Afghanistan and Somalia, and some have extended for decades, such as the [Democratic Republic of the Congo].” The vast majority of refugees are displaced either by war or resource-related deprivation, such as famine. Knowing this, employees at the USCIS take their jobs incredibly seriously. ”Sitting across from someone who has decided to risk everything, familially, personally, and financially; then requiring them to share their most intimate experiences” demands not just grave consideration, but also a passion for work those in the office consider a patriotic calling, and his resolve for his job and his country has not wavered.

When Trump’s first Presidential Executive Order on Immigration was announced on Friday, January 27, it was a shock to everyone. Colf said that when the Executive Order was signed on that Friday, DHS lawyers were scheduled to leave for their interviews as soon as the following Tuesday. Every year, most of the officers conducting interviews and investigations return to the States for the holidays, especially between administrations, before heading back overseas in the new year. “They were all ready to go do their jobs, and then the order came and changed everything.”

The disruption was almost total: refugee interviews were halted for 120 days, while immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries was suspended for 90 days. Even though a stay was ordered against the Executive Order, as it was against a subsequent executive order on immigration, the president has a much wider authority when it comes to refugees. That process is still halted, “and it isn’t entirely clear if it will start back up,” or what the refugee program will look like.

The Trump administration claimed that the refugee interview stoppage was necessary in order to review the refugee admission process and strengthen security via what it called “extreme vetting,” although as described above, security reviews are already deep and broad. When the Obama administration reviewed the process of interviewing Iraqi refugees, due to a security event in 2011, they did not halt scheduled interviews. Improvements to the system can happen while the system operates, and those who work within it encourage administrations to do so. USCIS employees are willing to have conversations about increased security, “but not at the expense of the program itself.”

For those working in the Refugee Admissions Program, having their efforts called into question is nothing short of demoralizing. “The work we do helps those communities that refugees resettle in, it makes our country safer, and it is the right thing to do to help these people,” says Mr. Colf. It’s also true that refugees are a global concern. Resettlement can be a “pressure valve” for some countries that are experiencing high levels of refugee influx, such as Lebanon and Jordan, each of which presently house over a million refugees. American efforts let those countries know that they are being supported, and that there is a framework of assistance for those refugees. Without ongoing support, the global system of non-refoulement, a foundational component of the UNHCR, which ensures that refugees are not forced to return to potentially dangerous circumstances in their country of origin, is placed in jeopardy.  

Before Trump’s Executive Orders, the process of vetting refugee applicants was thorough and comprehensive, and could take as long as 2 years. The people working at the USCIS are protecting their homes and communities just as much as any other government agency, and so they, too, want to make sure that each one of their applicants is truly a refugee. The idea that there is some sort of purposeful laxness in security is inaccurate and insulting to Colf and everyone working in the agency.  Donald Trump’s resolve to act was not based on a need to resolve the Refugee Admissions Program, but to appear decisive. Our refugee program does vital work for both the refugees, and the United States, and the best possible action would be to re-institute it as it was, if not increase it.

How You Can Help:

First of all, your Representative and Senators are powerful in this arena. Contacting them about this issue can only help.  However, most of the power and authority within the Refugee Admissions Program lies with the Executive Branch, and specifically with the President.  Although it’s unlikely that he will change his mind, again, contacting them and relaying your concerns can only help.

As for the refugees that are here, there are resettlement agencies, and donation services and so on, and they, too, are helpful.  Check your local government’s website for charities and organizations assisting those already here.  Find out if there are opportunities to meet and connect with them!  They have given up everything to come here, and every little bit helps them to feel welcome.

Image courtesy of Mustafa Khayet via flickr.