Do Not Pass Go: Refugee Admission Process

In the wake of the Paris attacks, much of the debate concerning refugees has resurfaced. There have been many talks centered on governors and other state officials trying to block Syrian refugees from entering their respective states. A majority of polled Americans want to block these refugees from coming to America. One interesting thing to note though is that governors may speak loudly, but they cannot block refugees from entering their states. President Obama has the federal law on his side, where he can admit refugees based upon humanitarian concerns. However, constitutionally speaking, governors do not have to aid President Obama in settling refugees into their respective states because the 10th Amendment limits the federal government’s power over the states.

Additionally, Congress could enact new legislation to stop refugees from entering the United States. There is a fear that terrorists may try to infiltrate the United States through the refugee program, but that fear is misguided because many people do not know how the vetting process for refugees works.

The first step for anyone seeking to resettle in another country as a refugee involves a lengthy application process with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR is an organization that helps refer refugees for resettlement in other countries. Once the UNHCR completes a review of the application and refers a refugee to America, the United States then begins its vetting process. This vetting process for refugees is not an easy path.

Homeland Security directs the process and works with the State Department, U.S. intelligence, and other law enforcement agencies. Refugees go through various in-person interviews, background checks, and must provide information about their family, friends, political activities, and more. Refugees must also provide biometric information like fingerprints and must also submit documents like government records about themselves. These are only some of the requirements refugees must go through to be allowed into the United States. A caveat to the vetting process includes the fact that other governments may not fully cooperate with U.S. officials conducting the vetting process. Thus, there is a possibility of refugees submitting forged documents. However, the whole point of the entire process is to get a holistic view, which helps combat cases where there might be a lack of information. Further, for Syrian refugees, there is additional screening call the Syria Enhanced Review.

Some other facts that may help Americans combat the fear of terrorists hiding as refugees would be demographic information. There have been rumors and people speaking about how the majority of refugees from Syria are young males, but the facts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees state that 50.3% of these refugees are women, while 49.7% are men. Of that 49.7% of men, only 22.1% are in the age bracket of 18-59. The rest of the 49.7% of males are in the age brackets ranging from 0 to 4 years old, 5 to 11 years old, 12 to 15 years old, or above the age of 60 years old. Clearly, the majority of refugees are not the young males people perceive as potential terrorists.

Recently, the House of Representatives just passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015 (“SAFE Act”). This bill would require that high-level officials like the Secretary of Homeland Security, the head of the FBI, and the director of national intelligence to sign off on whether every individual refugee from Iraq and Syria is a threat or not. It already takes an average of 12 to 18 months to process refugee applications, but generally even longer for Syrian applications, which can take 18 to 24 months. This Act does not seem feasible, and maybe that is the point. The fear many legislators and Americans have been understandable amidst all of the tragedies around the world. However, fear should not dictate national policies that threaten to affect thousands of people who are fleeing from the same fears that are influencing the SAFE Act. By requiring the high-level officials of various agencies to sign off on every individual refugee, would effectively halt the entire refugee admission process.

Fortunately, the Senate Democrats have vowed to make sure the bill will not pass on the Senate floor. The refugee admission process is already long, arduous, and thorough. Americans should not forget groups of people fleeing persecution, i.e. the pilgrims, have proven crucial in the history and foundation of this nation. There was a similar sentiment during World War II. Americans feared Nazi spies would hide as Jewish refugees and so, America refused entry to thousands of Jewish refugees, many of whom the Nazis killed because they had to return to Europe. We should not let history repeat itself.


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