No, Refugees Are Not Already Vigorously Vetted

By Dan Cadman, February 6, 2017

Natasha Hall, a former refugee officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has written an op-ed for the Sunday, February 5 edition of the Washington Post, titled "Refugees are already vigorously vetted. I know because I vetted them."

It is well-written, and from the heart. On that basis, I choose not to criticize Hall, as she is clearly sincere. But, as she notes, she was a refugee interviewing officer for four years. She mentions this as if it were an exhaustive period, but in truth it is not. What's more, her window into the operation of refugee vetting almost certainly ran concurrent with the eight years of the Obama administration, the wisdom and adequacy of whose policies and processes in virtually all immigration benefits are open to question.

I served nearly 30 years as an immigration officer, more than 20 of those with the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), when it was undivided and officers in any single division had close contact and a clear view of the work of those in other divisions, often working side-by-side in remote corners of the world.

One of the deficits of the current state of affairs, post-creation of the Department of Homeland Security, is the horse-blinders that it has of necessity imposed on officers of the three different agencies that now conduct the immigration-related functions of the federal government: USCIS, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Officers and agents in any one of them generally don't have any window into the functions of the others, and the threads that bind have started to unravel through separation.

Those like Hall, who served only in one of those three agencies — USCIS in her case — have a blinkered view of what constitutes vetting, or the continuum of the process from abroad to the interior, once aliens have been admitted. This is doubly true when one has only served in a single administration and thus has no rear-view mirror memory of what came before to compare against.

Hall shares with us a few anecdotes: Some are of the heart-warming human-interest sort; one tells of a Saddam Hussein-era operative complicit in human rights abuse who was denied. These are offered as proof of a robust system.

Sadly, anecdotes do not a system make. They prove nothing about the ultimate effectiveness of current vetting procedures, because in the end, the proof is not who got stopped, but who should have been and wasn't. The vetting system across the whole range of immigration benefits has been lacking in recent years, if the disturbingly large number of terrorist attacks and near-misses is any gauge (and it must be since, after all, that is the reason all of these immigration agencies were lumped into a department called "homeland security"). And in the particular case of refugees, we rely all too heavily on the United Nations to provide to us the list of applicants who will form the basis of our caseload.

For vetting to work, there has to be information to vet against. Where there is none, a blank slate is not necessarily evidence that an individual is a bona fide refugee, and yet that is the presumption that results from current processes. Refugee officers are instructed not to interrogate or otherwise engage in hostile questioning; they are limited in the outside resources they are permitted to use in forming judgments on the outcome of a case; and, increasingly, they are recruited solely from a pool of individuals whose careers prior to entering government were dedicated to the resettlement of refugees, thus giving them a predisposition toward approving, rather than denying, claimants.

That is admirable in a way, but it can run contrary to the public safety interests of the American people. We are not an amorphous mass to be considered in the abstract. When bombs go off, real people are killed, injured, and maimed. It is a sad irony that many refugee and asylum officers recognize that reality about the "clientele" they serve, but not so much so when they reflect on Americans.

I worry that, unless our refugee and asylum adjudication and resettlement programs are given serious thought and intelligently revised, in the end both programs will become a binary choice: either keep them as they are, and run the risk of more and more attacks, whether by bomb, gun, truck, or machete until compassion fatigue sets in, in earnest, among the American people, at which point the other option will be forced on policymakers by public demand and the programs will be shut down entirely.

My colleague, Nayla Rush, has written a backgrounder for the Center, "Revising Refugee Resettlement: Help Millions, Not a Lucky Few". It is worth reading because her suggestions form one basis on which to escape this either-or fate for a deserving but distinctly out-of-kilter program that does not now serve the national interest or the public safety.