Bombs killed two of Barwin Musa’s cousins during Syria’s 6-year-old civil war. Musa’s young son stuttered for a year after a mortar round exploded near him in Aleppo. Amid the fighting, the high school where Musa taught history shut down, putting her out of work.
Musa and her husband — a tailor who also couldn’t work because of the violence — decided it was time to make a break for it with their five children. So the Kurdish family briefly took shelter in a nearby town, but it was soon pulverized. Then they fled to Turkey, later learning their home in Aleppo had been flattened in a bombing.
The family arrived in Georgia last year after emerging from a year-and-a-half-long screening process overseas. Refugees, according to advocates, receive the most thorough screenings of any travelers to the United States. Yet President Donald Trump says the vetting process needs to be tightened, especially at a time when Americans are being targeted by terrorists.
The Trump administration is seeking to temporarily ban visitors from six Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, as well as refugees from around the world as it bolsters its screening procedures. Though federal courts have halted much of Trump’s directive, his administration is at work devising new procedures.
While supporters say the vetting is already thorough, critics argue it is not impenetrable and that even one slip could result in dire consequences.
In an interview at their modest apartment in Clarkston, Barwin and her husband, Yaser, said they and their children submitted to six interviews with United Nations and U.S. authorities — sometimes together and sometimes individually — and were fingerprinted and photographed and had their retinas scanned. At the U.S. embassy in Istanbul, authorities asked them many questions: Why did you leave Syria? What did you do for a living there? Did Yaser serve in the Syrian military?
“A lot of people were turned away in the process,” Yaser said through an Arabic interpreter. “One time they would ask you questions, and the next time another person would ask you the same questions. And if your story was a little bit different, they would ask you again and probe you further.”
FBI Director James Comey spoke about the limits of the process while testifying before Congress in 2015.
“We can only query against that which we have collected,” he said. “And so if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interests reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home but nothing will show up because we have no record on that person.”
Yes, there are risks with resettling refugees, but the current vetting process is “incredibly rigorous,” said John Sandweg, who served as acting general counsel for the U.S. Homeland Security Department during the Obama administration. Names, nicknames, telephone numbers and fingerprints are collected during the process, he said, and compared against U.S. intelligence and military databases, intercepted communications, and data shared by other countries.
“It is a very intense process that involves multiple rounds of checks, multiple rounds of in-person interviews, comprehensive searches of every piece of derogatory information in the United States’ holdings,” Sandweg said. “The notion that … there is some fundamental flaw or that it is lacking in its comprehensiveness just seems absurd to me.”
Refugees — there are estimated to be more than 21.3 million worldwide — flee their home countries to escape persecution, war or violence. Less than 1 percent are ever resettled. The United States resettled 84,995 in the fiscal year ending September 2016. Georgia received 3,017 that year, including 712 from four of the countries on Trump’s travel ban list: Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.
The process for screening them could be boosted with additional training for U.S. personnel and by placing a greater emphasis on the vulnerability and credibility of those being considered for resettlement, said David Inserra, a homeland security and cyber policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
“This is a very in-depth process,” Inserra said. “But I will say I think there is room for improvement.”
The head of the Atlanta humanitarian agency that helped resettle the Musa family in Georgia said she is confident the existing screening process is “rigorous and effective.”
“As an organization that works with newly arrived refugees on a daily basis, the security of the program is very important to us,” said Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways. “We are concerned that adding additional steps to a process that already takes 18 to 24 months will not improve safety but will put vulnerable people at risk.”
HOW REFUGEES TO THE U.S. ARE SCREENED
U.S. Homeland Security officials said they are still reviewing the vetting process. Here’s how it works now:
1. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees flags vulnerable people for possible resettlement, screens and interviews them, and collects identifying information.
2. A federally funded Resettlement Support Center interviews them and compiles identifying information so biographic security checks can be done.
3. The following U.S. agencies screen the refugees, using their biographical information: The Defense Department, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Those screenings look for connections to “bad actors,” outstanding warrants, immigration or criminal violations and other security risks. U.S. officials conduct an “enhanced review” for Syrian cases, which may involve the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate.
4. Specially trained USCIS officials conduct in-person interviews. Additional screenings and interviews may happen when new information arrives. Cases are put on hold until inconsistencies are resolved.
5. Fingerprints are taken and screened against FBI, Homeland Security and Defense Department databases, which might include watch-list information, previous encounters in the U.S. and overseas, and records captured in Iraq and other locations. Cases with any problematic results are denied.
6. A medical screening is performed. Refugees may be given medical care for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.
7. Refugees complete a cultural orientation class that teaches them about American customs and practices.
8. U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations determine where the refugees should be resettled based on such factors as their health and the location of relatives.
9. The International Organization for Migration books travel. Before they enter the United States, refugees are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center-Passenger system and the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight program. Refugee resettlement agencies meet them at airports and help them settle into their new communities.
10. Refugees are required to apply for green cards within a year of their arrival, a process that triggers another set of security procedures.
Source: The White House, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. State Department and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.