Sasha Chanoff is founder and executive director of the nonprofit RefugePoint. The opinions expressed here are his own; he is not speaking on behalf of RefugePoint.
There has been a great deal of concern about the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Are we letting terrorists into the United States? How much do we know about the Syrians being admitted? Is our vetting process strict enough?
For more than two decades, I’ve devoted my professional life to refugee resettlement, working and collaborating with nongovernmental organizations, the U.N. Refugee Agency and the U.S. government. Now I lead one of the few global agencies involved both with refugee resettlement for displaced communities and in the policy sphere.
Here are the facts:
First, we handpick refugees to be considered for resettlement. Our staff gets to know these refugees over a long period before we make a decision that an individual or family should be considered for resettlement. We regularly visit them where they live and often show up unannounced. We get to know them much better than I know most of my neighbors.
Second, the most at risk are identified. The U.N. Refugee Agency, which works hand in hand with governments, has resettlement criteria to help distinguish those whose needs are most urgent. The categories include people in danger, those with life-threatening medical conditions, survivors of torture, vulnerable women and unaccompanied children.
Third, refugees go through multiple interviews and security checks.
Once we are certain that individuals should have a chance to resettle, we conduct in-depth interviews, gathering their history of persecution, the reasons they can’t return home, the threats they face and extensive biographical information.
Additional staff members with extensive backgrounds in law and immigration consult on each case during this initial identification and referral step. Once a case dossier is complete, it gets submitted to a U.S. embassy. At this point, the U.S. resettlement process begins.
A U.S. government-contracted agency then conducts multiple additional interviews of individuals regarding their history of flight and persecution and to gather further biographical details. People trained to detect fraud and inconsistencies do these interviews to consider the veracity of the story from different perspectives. A refugee’s appearance is cross-referenced with the U.N. Refugee Agency photo taken at the time the person registered as a refugee in the country of asylum (often many years before the resettlement process starts).
Then the U.S. government sends an adjudication officer from the Department of Homeland Security who is specially trained on conditions in the refugee’s home country and in fraud detection. Officers sometimes interview family members separately as one of many tactics for discerning the truth. They bring a hard-line security orientation to the process. Our authorities cross-check what refugees say against extensive data available.
If conditionally approved for resettlement, a refugee then goes through background checks with the FBI and all 15 other national security agencies, along with the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Department. Refugees also undergo a health screening, and those with communicable diseases are generally held back until they are fully treated. The entire resettlement process takes an average of two to three years, and security checks are rerun continuously throughout this time. The process stops if new information comes to light. No other category of immigrants goes through such an intensive review.
You might well call this the strictest vetting. Our government has not been lax about this. The program is not run by incompetent government people, as some appear to believe.
The United States has brought in 3.3 million refugees since 1975, including some 800,000 since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They are not terrorists, and you have a better chance of getting killed by lightning than being harmed by a refugee carrying out such an attack. Rather, refugees have started businesses and helped to revive depressed downtown areas in places such as Lewiston, Maine; St. Louis; and Utica, N.Y.
As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said, “Perhaps no issue on the global agenda is more susceptible to grandstanding demagogues than that of refugees . . . ‘Us’ versus ‘them’ is a timeless, irresponsible unifier used to obscure our common humanity by those with dangerously self-serving interests.”
A global refugee crisis is unfolding on a scale that we have never seen before. Some 65 million people have been displaced by violence. We can resettle more than the 12,500 Syrians who have arrived this year. It is not our capacity or our security systems that are being tested; it is us and our deepest beliefs. Do we stand for justice, freedom, inclusiveness and other values that underpin the United States’ leadership in the world? Are we or are we not a decent people?