After Criticism, State Department Official Says Refugee Vetting Process Is "Robust"

Nov 24, 2015

Credit Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman

On Saturday, more than 1000 Idahoans rallied at the state capitol for and against refugee resettlement. That was after the state's governor and Congressional delegation all requested a suspension of the refugee resettlement program until they are assured that a comprehensive vetting process is in place.

Morning Edition Host Dan Greenwood spoke with Larry Bartlett, Director of Refugee Admissions for the U.S. State Department about those concerns and the lengthy screening process that begins when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees identifies a person or family in need of refuge in the U.S.

Larry Bartlett: Once the application comes to us and we accept it for consideration, at that point in time we run a series of checks. We run the class check, which is run through the Department of State, we run checks with a host of intelligence agencies, so that includes the national counter terrorism center of the FBI in terms of looking at law enforcement and others. The checks are taking place frankly during the whole time of the processing overseas, so from the moment that we receive the case until the person gets on the plane, these checking processes are taking place. They’re not just biographic based on name and date of birth, but they’re also biometric. So we take fingerprints for each refugee and they are run through the FBI and the Department of Defense. Just prior to travel there is a final check that’s run through Customs and Border Protection. That’s the final check before somebody would arrive at the port of entry.

Dan Greenwood: Has the State Department reached out to the governors opposing the current refugee resettlement procedures?

The administration has reached out and certainly the State Department has been part of that outreach. They have reached out to all governors. Those opposed, those supporting and those that are neutral - certainly to communicate about how the vetting process works and a little bit more about why this program is so important for our country.

The president has said that he will allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country. Considering there are millions of Syrian refugees, how does your department narrow that down?

Again, we go back to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is really our main oversees partner on all refugee affairs, not just for resettlement but for protection and assistance. UNHCR is looking at vulnerability so they are looking for those people who are most in need of resettlement. We’re not picking the most educated, we’re not picking people who necessarily want to come to the United States. We’re picking people who need to come to the United States. Maybe they have a medical need, maybe a need of mental health counseling. Whatever it is UNHCR will have identified what that special need is and put that application forward to the United States. And it’s frankly what they do for other resettlement countries as well. There are now 30 countries that are resettling Syrians. So we are part of an international system of response and relief.

How has the vetting process evolved over the years in respect to the rising instability in the Middle East?

The vetting process is always being examined. And ever since 9/11 we have looked very closely at what our abilities are, and each intelligence agency has that responsibility on an ongoing basis. I think it was 2007, we enacted a new interagency check. That was specifically developed around the time we were doing large scale Iraqi resettlement, as a way to get further insight into the refugee clients that we were trying to resettle. That is probably the more recent example of a new check, but I can assure you that check has been refined since 2007 and we continue to look at additional measures that we can take.

The French Government has said that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks was posing as a refugee. How confident are you that with the U.S. vetting process, that won't happen here? 

The big difference of course in terms of what happened in Europe and the way our program is performed is that all of our measures are taken overseas; so all of our screening, all of our interviews. All the processing takes place before people arrive to the United States. And so again, it's heavy migrant flows, and frankly they’re mixed flows, some of them are refugees and some are migrants into Europe. People are not arriving at a border with screening. And so we have a very intentional process where we take up to two years to interview and screen a refugee family before they arrive. No program is without risk but we are very confident that we have the most robust measures in place. Refugees are the most heavily screened persons who arrive in the United States. I think that’s a reflection of the seriousness which the Administration places on making sure that we don’t endanger the United States. I think it’s one of the reasons that we can talk with governors about the fact that this program needs to continue in all 48 states (that accept refugees).

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