Georgians brace as Trump looks to tighten refugee vetting process


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.”




Next Up in Local

Defense: Uber Eats driver accused of killing Morehouse grad shot in self-defense
Defense: Uber Eats driver accused of killing Morehouse grad shot in self-defense

The attorney for an Uber Eats driver accused of killing a customer wants a judge to throw out the charges against his client.   Robert Bivines’ attorney filed a request for an immunity hearing, allowing a judge to decide if his client acted in self-defense when he allegedly killed one of his customers in February. If the judge agrees...
Director Sean Anders on filming ‘Instant Family’ in Atlanta and Cobb
Director Sean Anders on filming ‘Instant Family’ in Atlanta and Cobb

Sean Anders sat in a mostly empty event space at Four Seasons Atlanta, casual in a ball cap with a “Wagner Custom Renovations” logo — a nod to the fictional company in his latest movie, “Instant Family.” He patiently awaited a delivery from South City Kitchen around the corner.  “I wasn’t really...
Texas pet shelter gets food donations from community 
Texas pet shelter gets food donations from community 

A Texas animal services company got some paw-sitive news this week, KSAT reported. >> Read more trending news  San Antonio Animal Care Services announced last week that it had just nine bags of dog food in its pantry, the television station reported. Since then, the nonprofit group had more than 8,000 pounds of pet food donated within...
Cops: Man driving 118 mph — in 45-mph zone — says he was testing new car parts
Cops: Man driving 118 mph — in 45-mph zone — says he was testing new car parts

A Lawrenceville man was cited last month after he was caught allegedly driving more than 100 mph — in a 45-mph zone, police said. Channel 2 Action News reported that a Duluth officer was patrolling on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard when he clocked a 2007 BMW going 118 mph and swerving around traffic. When he pulled the car over, the...
Massachusetts utility to provide Thanksgiving dinners to explosion victims
Massachusetts utility to provide Thanksgiving dinners to explosion victims

The utility company behind the natural gas explosions in Massachusetts in September is planning to provide 20,000 hot Thanksgiving dinners to residents who have still not returned to their homes. >> Read more trending news  Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said meals provided by Columbia Gas will be served at the temporary trailer parks where some...
More Stories