Iraqi national Omar Ameen resettled in the United States in 2014 was recently arrested in California on murder charges and affiliation with a designated foreign terrorist organization (ISIS). This was another sad example of the need to keep strengthening the vetting process for refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States in order to maximize the detection of fraud and deception. As Ameen awaits extradition to Iraq in a Sacramento County jail, the following questions remain unanswered:
USCIS Review of Past Cases
Omar Ameen's refugee resettlement case was processed and accepted during FY 2014 (his case was approved on June 5, 2014). He was admitted to the United States on November 2014 (thus in FY 2015). In FY 2015, which started October 1, 2014, 69,933 refugees were admitted, of whom, 12,676 were Iraqi nationals. One of them was Ameen.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — the federal agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States (including refugees) — started implementing new security measures and procedures to strengthen refugee screening following President Trump's election.
Question: With Ameen's case in mind, does USCIS plan on reviewing past admissions cases?
Ameen had two arrest warrants against him issued by the Iraqi authorities prior to his resettlement in the United States (one in 2010 and one in 2011). Another warrant was issued in 2017, long after Ameen's resettlement on American soil. And one last one came on May 16, 2018. Moreover, an arrest warrant issued from Iraq in 2010 targeted three of Ameen's brothers, charging them with terrorism. One of the brothers was the one Ameen lied about in his refugee application, claiming both were kidnapped by the Mahdi Army — an army formed to expel the U.S. coalition from Iraq and establish an Iraqi Shiite government — and that he alone had managed to flee.
Question: Why did all these warrants issued by Iraq (a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism) fall through the cracks?
Numerous Returns to Iraq, Where He Supposedly Feared Persecution
From the time he fled to Turkey in 2012 until he left for the United States in 2014, Ameen returned many times to Iraq — a fact he admitted during his May 2014 refugee resettlement interview with a USCIS officer in Turkey.
Question: Why didn't this fact raise a red flag?
Two-Year FBI Investigation Before Arrest
After settling in Sacramento, Ameen filed to adjust his status (obtain a green card), most probably sometime in 2015. Did he get one? Apparently not, 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). Regardless, Ameen managed to stay in the United States for another two years.
Question: Why wasn't Ameen arrested in 2016? And what prompted his arrest by U.S. authorities on August 15, 2018?
USCIS Interviewing Officer
A cadre of USCIS officers called the Refugee Corps was created in 2005 to adjudicate refugee applications. Based in Washington, D.C., they travel to different locations to conduct in-person interviews with applicants overseas. USCIS recruits temporary officers from other USCIS offices to meet workload demands (especially when refugee ceilings increase). According to a Government Accountability Office report, refugee interviews overseas performed by USCIS temporary staff who are less experienced and trained can lead to errors and inefficiencies.
Question: Was the USCIS officer who interviewed Ameen in Turkey in 2014 a permanent member of the Refugee Corps, or a staff member temporarily assigned from another office?
Nine State Department-funded resettlement support centers (RSCs) abroad play an important role in the refugee admissions process: They conduct in-person prescreening interviews of resettlement applicants, record persecution stories, collect extended family information, etc., that USCIS officers use to determine applicants' eligibility and credibility and adjudicate cases accordingly. RSC staff (who are generally citizens of the countries where they are stationed) not only prescreen refugees abroad, they help them build their cases to submit to U.S. officials for resettlement.
Question: Which RSC was in charge of Ameen's case in Turkey? Was it the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), a resettlement partner of the U.S. government in the Middle East since the 1960s that operates the resettlement support center for Turkey and the Middle East (RSC TuME) and that is 49.9 percent funded by the U.S. government, according to 2016 figures? Will this RSC review its pre-screening system?
U.S. Reliance on UNHCR and RSCs
The United States relies on the United Nations (specifically, the UN High Commission for Refugees or UNHCR) for resettlement referrals and on the RSCs for the prescreening process and case applications of refugees. It is UNHCR that referred Ameen to the United States for resettlement and offered him a chance to become an American citizen. It is probably ICMC who prescreened and helped build Ameen's resettlement case.
Question: Will the U.S. government reconsider its near-total reliance on the UNHCR and RSCs for a range of pre-departure services linked with resettlement? Will the United States ask for enhanced accountability and control measures from these organizations?
Volags' Reception and Help
Inside the United States, nine non-governmental organizations work with, and are funded by, the Department of State to resettle refugees. These religious or community-based organizations, referred to as voluntary agencies (or volags), help resettled refugees with reception upon arrival; support with housing, food, and clothing; community orientation; English lessons; enrollment in various benefits and welfare programs; and referral to social service providers (including health care, employment, etc.)
There are four volags operating in Sacramento: Church World Service (CWS); International Rescue Committee (IRC); United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); and World Relief Corporation (WR).
Question: Which volag helped Ameen settle in? What type of assistance did he receive — a house, car, employment referrals, etc.?
Employment in the United States
Refugees are authorized to work immediately upon arrival to the United States.
Question: Did Ameen work in the United States? If yes, what did he do and who was his employer?
A resettlement case submitted to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program's (USRAP) can include many applicants. All applicants must be deemed admissible to the United States, but only the "principal applicant" in a case must classify as a refugee.
Question: Was Ameen resettled in the United States with family members, i.e., was he the only candidate or the principal candidate on a case? And did he apply for a green card alone or with family members?
Sponsoring Family Members
Within two years of arrival, refugees in the United States can file a Form I-730 to request admission for their spouses and/or unmarried children under 21 years of age. The beneficiaries do not need to demonstrate persecution; they derive their status from the refugee relative in the United States who filed the petition.
Another way for resettled refugees to bring family members to the United States is through so-called Priority-3 processing. Only designated nationalities in the United States who entered as refugees or were granted asylum can sponsor immediate family members in this fashion. Spouses, unmarried children under the age of 21, and parents of the U.S. anchor can participate in this program. They do not need to independently establish that they qualify as refugees; they derive their refugee status from the principal applicant (i.e. the "U.S. anchor"). In FY 2015, Iraq was among the nationalities for whom P-3 processing was available.
Question: Did Ameen sponsor any family members to join him in the United States? If he was resettled with his family members (or they joined him afterwards), will they be extradited as well? Will they lose whatever immigration benefits they received through him?
Notice to Appear
The Justice Department explained that upon his arrest, Ameen was also served 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."
This means he is deportable as an alien who was inadmissible at his time of entry because he lied to get in.
Question: What about the family members he came with or who joined him afterwards? Can they be deported too, since they were sponsored by him, either as the principal applicant or the U.S. anchor?
A Suggestion: Two-Year Conditional Green Cards for Refugees
One final point about expedited citizenship for refugees: U.S. immigration law "requires refugees to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status after they have been physically present in the United States for at least one year." The green card is a 10-year (renewable) document that offers almost all the benefits of U.S. citizenship except for the right to vote and hold public office. Five years after arrival (rather than after green card approval, as for most immigrants) refugees can apply for American citizenship. Ameen could thus have become an American citizen as early as 2019.
Instead of giving resettled refugees 10-year green cards, the U.S. government should consider granting two-year conditional permanent residence. The two-year period allows for a reevaluation of cases, after which either permanent residency status is granted or an order for removal issued. This two-year, non-renewable green card is currently given to, among others, aliens married to U.S. citizens who, in order to remove the conditions on their green card, need to prove to authorities that they entered the marriage in good faith and did not get married to evade U.S. immigration laws.
For refugees, the reevaluation of cases some three years after resettlement in the United States could be helpful on many levels. It would afford an extra layer of vetting, could uncover false asylum claims that fell through the cracks, and could spot radicalization trends.
Why not use this extra layer of vetting to try and stop people like Ameen from using a humanitarian program to flee not persecution, but their own justice system?