By Andy Weir, Medill, Immigrant Connect
“We’re seeing migration around the world like we’ve never seen before,” said Melissa Chavin, founder of the Chavin Immigration Law Office in London. “As that happens, we’re seeing more recoil and resistance.”
That recoil and resistance has reached new heights lately with President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders temporarily suspending the nation’s refugee admissions program and ultimately halving the number of refugees entering the United States annually from 110,000 to 50,000.
Proponents of the measure argue that refugee vetting procedures are too weak and leave room for potential terrorists to slip through, while opponents say the refugee vetting procedures have never been stronger.
Though the process is time-consuming and highly selective, the vetting procedures can be quite different depending on the country in which a refugee will potentially settle.
Before a destination is even decided, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) interviews refugee applicants to determine if they qualify, based on UNHCR’s comprehensive definition of a refugee. Unlike U.S. courts, the burden of proof is on the potential refugee, according to the UNHCR.
While the criteria vary slightly depending on region, the UNCHR generally defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” It adds that a refugee also must have “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
Refugee status does not necessarily mean a refugee will be resettled. According to the UNHCR, in 2015, the organization classified 21.3 million people as refugees but only 107,000 of them were resettled.
That discrepancy is partly because the UNHCR leaves much of the remaining decisions and work, including admissions policies and quotas and vetting procedures, to the countries willing to admit refugees after it has identified them as potential candidates for resettlement. Ultimately, the countries decide whom they are prapared to admit.
In Europe, for example, the vetting process prioritizes expediency, given that many of these refugees are already in or around Europe. The European Union utilizes such agencies as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office to conduct brief security checks before passing the refugees off to individual countries.
Some countries, such as Germany, set minimum quotas in an effort to resettle as many refugees as quickly as possible, while other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have strict maximum quotas on how many refugees they will admit.
On the other hand, the United States has established a more time-consuming process that can take up to two years and involves numerous background checks and interviews with refugees.
Their first of these interviews is usually with a contractor from the U.S. State Department.
Steven Heller, also an associate at the Chavin Immigration Law Office, was one of the refugee vetting officers. He worked in Africa interviewing potential refugees for the State Department until 2006.
“They’re not interviewed in their native country. They may be taken to Jordan, for example, or even interviewed in a refugee camp. It can be very disarming or nerve-wracking for them.” Heller said. “[At the time,] our job was more understand their background.”
In recent years, according to Heller, these interviews have become increasingly security-focused.
“My understanding now is that there is more of an emphasis on security now. They have stronger background checks and tougher interviews,” he said.
After the interview, refugees proceed to two background checks. Refugees between the ages of 14 and 65 are also subject to another background check after the initial two. These backgrounds checks utilize worldwide databases that monitor terrorist and criminal activity, according to the State Department.
Should the refugee pass the background checks, the FBI, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security each fingerprint the refugees for additional background checks.
The process varies also based on the refugee’s country of origin. While many of the refugees come from Somalia and Afghanistan, the majority now come from Syria with more than 4.9 million Syrians displaced in 2015 alone, according to the latest report from the UNHCR.
Because of the high volume of refugees from Syria, Syrian refugees must also have their cases specifically reviewed by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Some are randomly selected to be reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security as well.
If the refugee clears all reviews and backgrounds checks, he or she is interviewed by an official from the Department of Homeland Security and is screened for any contagious diseases.
Upon being accepted, all refugees must attend a cultural orientation and assimilation class to prepare them for life in the United States. They are also matched with a refugee resettlement agency to help the refugees adjust and begin to support themselves after they arrive.
Although the process may seem over, one last security check occurs just prior to the refugee’s departure for the United States to ensure nothing in their background has changed over the course of the process.
Heller said the whole process is also very dynamic.
“It changes significantly. It has changed a lot since I was working with refugees and asylum seekers, and I’d expect it to continue to change,” he said.
Heller and Chavin both expect even more changes in the near future under a Trump administration, changes that Heller worries may be misguided.
“I would feel a lot safer, personally, in the United States if they were increasing intel and expanding those resources,” he said. “Historically, these groups try to groom people who are already in the countries they want to target.”
Ultimately, Chavin sees the President’s most recent actions as part of a broader backlash to globalization and immigration.
“People think [the migration crisis] is only going to get worst with how the current global political climate is changing,” Chavin said. “In all that resistance, people forget the humanitarian element of all of this. These are real people, leading real lives, and escaping very real problems,” she concluded.