Last week's arrest in California of an Iraqi refugee accused of being a member of ISIS is yet another sad example of the need to keep improving the vetting system of refugees resettled in the United States. Despite claims by the Obama administration that refugees were subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, reality, as this case demonstrates, is different.
The Trump administration has introduced new measures to strengthen the vetting process of refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States in order to maximize the detection of fraud and deception. But improving the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) screening capabilities also means admitting fewer refugees. Additional security procedures take time and resources are limited – this explains, in part, the lower refugee ceiling and admissions this past fiscal year (and most probably the upcoming one).
Ameen's warrants and arrest
Iraq is seeking the extradition of the Iraqi national, Omar Ameen, to stand trial on charges of premeditated murder of a police officer in Iraq in 2014 on behalf of the terrorist organization ISIS. An Iraqi judge issued a warrant for Ameen's arrest on May 16, 2018. Ameen had at least three prior warrants against him issued by the Iraqi authorities (in 2010, 2011, and 2017). Two were issued prior to his resettlement in the United States.
Ameen has been a member of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its successor organization, ISIS since 2004 without ever renouncing his membership. The FBI interviewed numerous witnesses who identified the Ameen family (Ameen himself, his father, brothers, and paternal cousins) as affiliated with AQI and ISIS. According to a "Memorandum of Extradition Law and Request for Detention Pending Extradition Proceedings" issued by the U.S. Justice Department: "Evidence gathered in a Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") investigation of Ameen, ongoing since 2016, corroborates Ameen's membership in and actions on behalf of AQI and ISIS, including the murder."
Ameen was arrested on August 15, 2018, by the U.S. authorities. He is currently detained in the Sacramento County Jail pending his extradition to Iraq (pursuant to an extradition treaty between Iraq and the United States). The Justice Department explained that Ameen was also served a "notice to appear charging him with a Notice to Appear, charging him with violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(1)(A); Immigration and Nationality Act Section 237(a)(1)(A), as being, at the time of entry or of adjustment of status, within one or more of the classes of aliens inadmissible by the laws existing at such time... These removal proceedings against Ameen will remain pending as this extradition matter proceeds first."
Ameen's "refuge" in Turkey and numerous visits home
Ameen fled Iraq to Turkey in 2012, where he applied for (and received) refugee status from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He then applied for a chance to be resettled in the United States through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. From the time he fled to Turkey in 2012 until he left for the U.S. in 2014, Ameen returned many times to Iraq – a fact he admitted during his May 2014 refugee resettlement interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers in Turkey. His passport did not reflect any departure from Turkey beyond his entry date on April 1, 2012, which confirms the porous nature of the Iraqi-Syria-Turkey borders during this time. It is on one of those visits to his home country that Ameen is accused of killing an Iraqi police officer on June 22, 2014.
Ameen's immigration dossier: A path of lies towards U.S. citizenship
Ameen's refugee resettlement application was approved by the USCIS on June 5, 2014. He was admitted into the U.S. on November 4, 2014. After settling in Sacramento, he filed to adjust his status to that of legal permanent resident (i.e., obtain a green card). He was interviewed under oath in conjunction with his I-485 Application to Adjust Status application on May 26, 2016. Apparently, he was not granted one, since the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force began investigating him in 2016 for suspected violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1546 (fraud and misuse of visas, permits, and other documents).
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Ameen's past had gone undetected, allowing him to become a legal permanent resident. For refugees, the five-year count toward citizenship begins on the day of arrival – not upon green card approval, as for most immigrants. That means Ameen could have become an American citizen as early as 2019.
Ameen lied to the UNHCR and to the U.S. government, omitting any mention of criminal conduct or affiliation with a designated foreign terrorist organization. He lied across all his immigration applications and refugee documentation, claiming his father had been killed for cooperating with the American military (the father died from natural causes). He also claimed he and his brother were kidnapped in 2012 and that he alone had managed to flee. This, also, turned out to be a lie. According to the Justice Department extradition memorandum: "These two claims of past persecution formed the basis of Ameen's acceptance as a refugee. By falsely claiming to be a victim of past persecution, Ameen created a narrative that resulted in approval of his refugee application." (Emphasis added.)
The U.S. Justice Department detailed Ameen's false claims across all his immigration applications:
Ameen concealed his true identity as a member of AQI and ISIS to immigrate to the United States. He lied about his background and the circumstances of his departure from Iraq in order to evade detection, seeking to blend into the flow of legitimate refugees fleeing the conflict zone. Indeed, Ameen inverted the narrative, claiming instead to be a victim of violence in two instances:
1- Ameen claimed on his Resettlement Registration Form before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("UNHCR") that in 2010, his father, Abdulsattar Ameen Hussein, was killed due to his cooperation with the American military. Ameen repeated this claim under oath on his I-590 Registration for Classification as Refugee before USCIS, stating that his father was "shot dead" because "he accepted to carry portable houses belong[ing] to the Iraqi military." Ameen repeated the claim once again verbally under oath in an interview [May 26, 2016] conducted in conjunction with his I-485 Application to Adjust Status [application for a green card]. In actuality, the death certificate for Abdulsattar Ameen (which Ameen did not submit with any of his applications) indicates he died from natural causes—a cerebral clot—on December 25, 2010.
2- Ameen claimed on his refugee application that on March 4, 2012, when he was living in Baghdad [Iraq] with one of his brothers, their home was raided by masked, black-clad men, and the brother was taken away and not heard from again. Ameen claimed the he was able to escape, and attributed the raid and kidnapping to the "Mahdi Army," a reference to Jaish Al Mahdi ("JAM"). According to Ameen, he feared persecution based on the kidnapping of his brother if he were to remain in Iraq. Ameen repeated the claim of feared persecution based on this brother's disappearance on his adjustment of status application [green card application]. In actuality, an arrest warrant was issued from the Higher Judicial Court of Investigation in AlKarkh, on December 26, 2010, for the arrest of that brother, Ameen, and two of his other brothers, charging them with terrorism… (Emphases added).
New vetting measures to avoid resettling other "Ameens"
Following President's Trump's March 2017 executive order, "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States", the United States government conducted an interagency joint review of the refugee admissions program (between the Departments of State (State), Homeland Security (DHS), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)) to determine what additional procedures to put in place to make sure resettled refugees did not pose a threat to the United States.
Accordingly, USCIS started implementing new security measures and procedures to strengthen refugee screening. According to a DHS press release, those include but are not limited to, "increased data collection to more thoroughly investigate applicants, better information sharing between agencies to identify threat actors, and new training procedures to strengthen screener ability to detect fraud and deception."
Additional procedures for refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States are listed in a memo to President Trump issued by the heads of the State Department, DHS, and ODNI last October. For the application process, increased data collection and enhanced identity management are intended to make it harder for applicants to use deceptive tactics to come to the U.S.
For the "Interview and Adjudication Process" the memo lists the following:
- Fraud Detention and National Security: Trained USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security (FONS) officers will be deployed to certain refugee processing locations overseas to assist interviewing officers and help identify potential fraud and other security concerns.
- New Guidance and Training on how to assess the credibility and admissibility of refugee applicants provided by USCIS to refugee adjudicators.
- Expanded Information Sharing: State and USCIS are set to exchange more in-depth information which will allow interviewing officers to develop more tailored lines of questioning.
Stronger vetting measures mean lower refugee ceilings and admissions
In a hearing on refugee admissions last fall, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna explained the need to limit refugee admissions in FY 2018 in order to improve vetting processes: "For FY 2018, the President has set the refugee admissions ceiling at 45,000. This ceiling takes into account the need to implement enhanced security and integrity measures."
FY 2018 refugee admissions to date total 19,040. That number might not be much higher by September 30, when the current fiscal year ends.
At an event organized by the Center for Immigration Studies last week, Cissna elaborated on these numbers:
I think that the array of checks that we are now doing on refugees truly, truly are very good. They are truly the maximum that we can do right now within the law and within our capacity to vet refugees. But as a consequence of that, the number of refugees that are going to be coming in this year will be below the ceiling, for sure. And remember, it is a ceiling; it's not a quota...The ceiling was 45, 000; we'll be coming in below that, I'm sure, by the end of the fiscal year. And, you know some of the reasons for that are – well, first of course, the program was suspended for several months during the middle of the fiscal year, so that naturally reduced the number of people that we interviewed or processed into the program. To get back up to speed after the suspensions, it takes a while to be sending refugee officers out again to interview people. But additionally, the checks that we're doing take time, and that's appropriate...I mean, if we're going to be doing them right, they take as long as they take. There is no reason we should speed up the checks, you know, to get people – for the sake of getting people through. (Emphasis added.)
Refugee admission numbers for FY2019 – which are yet to be determined – are also expected to be guided by security considerations. In the words of Cissna, "when the president determines what the number is going to be for next year, that fact that the checks take time, and that my agency only has a certain number of people available to do this type of work needs to be factored in. And I'm sure it will be. These are facts on the ground that need to be taken into account when determining what the number is."
In the end, improving vetting processes that have long been in place should be a priority for every person involved in the refugee resettlement program. The program will never be 100 percent safe, and radicalization can take place long after admission. But improved vetting can ensure people like this Iraqi terrorist wearing a fake refugee hat have a lesser chance of being welcomed into the United States.