You Should Know

You Should Know

How Does the United States Resettle Refugees?

By Sara McElmurry

US airstrikes in Syria in April 2017 raised questions about US refugee resettlement policies – both their effectiveness in preventing terrorists from entering the United States and the humanitarian implications of blocking refugees. How rigorous is our current refugee vetting system? Here's what you should know.

President Trump issued an executive order in January 2017 that indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from entering the country and halved the number of other refugees that the United States will accept.

While an updated executive order in March removed the ban on Syrian refugees, it enacted a 120-day suspension of the refugee resettlement program. Syria also remains on a list of countries subjected to a 90-day travel ban.

Before the executive orders, the United States had accepted 18,000 of the more than 5 million Syrians who have registered as refugees since the civil war began in 2011. Most Syrian refugees are currently living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

The executive orders call for the US Refugee Admissions Program to review and potentially increase screening measures in an attempt to prevent terrorists from entering the country with refugee flows.

The current vetting process for refugee resettlement takes an average of two years, and less than one percent of global refugees are resettled each year. Syrians were already subjected to even more screenings throughout the process.

The process begins with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which collects biometric data, conducts interviews with people in temporary refugee camps, and then decides which candidates to refer for resettlement.

Refugees referred to the United States are processed by one of nine Resettlement Support Centers operated by the US Department of State around the world.

Five federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies collaborate on additional screenings, cross-reference data, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts in-person interviews.

Selected candidates are fingerprinted and screened against multiple federal databases. They also are subject to medical checks. Any with security concerns are halted.

Refugees complete a cultural orientation and are matched with a resettlement agency, which assesses possible resettlement locations based on family reunification and other criteria. 

US Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Safety Administration conduct ongoing pre-travel screenings before refugees travel to the United States.

The vetting doesn’t end once refugees arrive in the United States. They are required to apply for a green card within a year, which triggers additional biometric screenings.

The Trump administration has not provided specific details about how the vetting and resettlement process would be made more comprehensive. Changes may require that visitors share cell phone contacts, social media passwords, and other digital data.

Critics of the executive order suspending the admission of Syrian refugees point to changes to the Visa Waiver Program and broader immigration reforms as the best ways to strengthen national security.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently hosted a discussion on the economic and societal effects of the new politics of immigration. Watch the event video.

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