For Refugees, 18-24 Months of Waiting, Not Vetting

By Nayla Rush on January 11, 2016

In making the case for resettling more and more refugees, especially Syrians, the Obama administration has made the following assurances:

  • Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.
  • Refugees' vetting process takes (on average) 18 months.

This would be comforting if it were credible. CIS underlined the opacity of public officials' testimonies here, and the absence of dependable screening measures for Syrian (and other) refugees here. In short, the lack of solid on-the-ground intelligence systems and the unreliability of required documentation in sending countries such as Syria result in important gaps in security.

Moreover, the United States is entrusting the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Middle East with the entire selection and pre-screening process of Syrian refugees eligible for resettlement in the U.S. (My new article on the UNHCR's role in U.S. refugee resettlement is here.)

The 18 to 24 months of the vetting process are not really spent on additional scrutiny, as Kelly Gauger from the U.S. State Department explained at a recent panel discussion in Washington:

It takes 18 months to vet a refugee to come to the US. We are not spending 18 months doing security checks. One of the reasons it takes we usually say 18 to 24 months for a refugee to come to the United States is that we will accept a referral from UNHCR of any nationality, in any location [the U.S. has 100 different processing locations from all corners of the world - Australia and Canada for example only have ten or twelve], at any time. So at any given time, we've got something like a quarter of a million people who are turning through the system, somewhere between just being referred by UNHCR who have just applied or about to get on a plane for the U.S. That said, we are not the fastest program in the world. It's a large ship that takes a long time to turn. [Emphasis added]

Gauger went on to dismiss proposals to welcome 100,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, and not just 10,000 that the administration says it will admit:

The program [the Refugee Resettlement Program] is just now gearing up, is just now ramping up. Now as of this morning [October 19 2015], I checked, we've received almost 22,000 referrals from UNHCR. So we're in the process of vetting those and getting them ready for DHS interviews. We'll have a huge number of DHS interviews in the region this year. And I think we'll be able to get to 10,000. But the notion that we could get to 100,000 refugees when UNHCR doesn't have nearly the capacity to send us referrals for 100,000 refugees just isn't possible.

So if you think that officers (whether from UNHCR or the U.S. State Department) are spending 18 to 24 months screening and interviewing people, think again. What is more likely is that resettlement candidates are interviewed only three times before entering the United States: twice by UNHCR staff (for granting refugee status and resettlement referral) and once by DHS officers. (Those DHS officers, by the way undergo a basic training of eight whole weeks to learn both the relevant law and also how to elicit testimony and to test credibility before being sent to interview applicants.) Larry Bartlett, director of refugee resettlement for the State Department, testified recently to this effect: "So by the time our folks are reviewing the application, they've already been talked to twice. They have had a very good incentive to provide accurate information to the UNHCR because that's how – at that registration that's how they get food rations and housing, for the most part."

Accurate information might be provided, or not. The point is, there is no way (at least for now) to know for sure.

This administration will need to come up with different talking points to persuade the American people of the reliability of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Or, better yet, it can suspend the program until dependable vetting measures are found.