The recent terrorist attacks around the globe have generated a fear-based movement by American politicians to essentially close US borders to certain populations of refugees and immigrants from Syria and Iraq. Anti-refugee propaganda has spread like wildfire across social media sites urging political leaders to ban Syrian and Iraqi refugees, identifying them as terrorists masquerading themselves as those fleeing the actual terrorists. This online battle has resulted in outrageous online banter, hasty postings of inflammatory stories and many Americans “unfriending” lifelong pals.
As a former prosecutor for the Department of Homeland Security and current private bar attorney, I am saddened that the fear of terrorist acts has been once again identified as an immigration issue. I have been asked by multiple people what my perspective is, I suppose because of my expertise and background, and I’ve waited a few days before publicly making a statement about the latest hot topic, as it clearly is very close to what has been my everyday life for the past 10+ years. After much thought, I decided to give a factual account and insight to the public about the US refugee process, with a particular focus on the US security clearance system involved. By sharing this insight, I am hopeful that it may alleviate and dispel the fear that Syrian refugees, or any other refugee, are potentially taking on the role of a “Trojan Horse” as one politico recently stated.
Each fiscal year, the United States allots a specific number of visas for refugees from around the world. This and last year, Congress allotted 75,000 visas for refugees, of which only 70,000 were actually used, due to the background security process that seems to be questioned today. Prior to the issuance of a refugee visa, there is an extensive vetting process involved that takes years before the refugee actually sees American soil. When a refugee arrives in one of the international refugee camps and begins to identify where they would like to resettle, they are processed through international rescue organizations that are contracted with the US Department of State. These organizations process each refugee through multiple interviews, obtaining their story, identification documents, and any evidence the refugee can produce. Once the organization identifies the refugee as a potential candidate for a US visa based upon a number of factors, the refugee’s years-long security background check process begins. It starts with a run through the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) with the US Department of State as well as the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS).
The CLASS system is a database used by the Dept. of State for performing namechecks to identify individuals who may be ineligible for issuance. The system maintains information that shows if the person has ever at any time attempted to enter the US, or even been listed on an application previously on his or her own, or through family members. It includes data that can tell refugee camp officials if they have already been deemed ineligible to enter the US which will then quickly disqualify the refugee.
The IBIS system is an extremely sophisticated law enforcement and regulatory database that contains information from more than 20 federal agencies and bureaus that was created as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The Bush Administration ordered the compilation of data into a centralized system that would prevent, as much as humanly possible, any more atrocities we faced that day. The IBIS system compiles data from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, FAA, DHS, and Interpol among many. The data from the FBI includes information obtained through its various sources that identify known or suspected terrorists, and any possible person or organization that has been remotely identified with them through many top secret channels.
When refugees seeks a visa to come to the United States, their fingerprints and names are also run through the IBIS systems while they are abroad in the refugee camps. Officials run both name and fingerprint background checks on the individual through IBIS. If there is any derogatory information, the person is flagged for further inquiry and review by an investigative team. This process takes an extensive additional amount of time – years. Detailed teams of attorneys and agents from the Department of Homeland Security also rotate and travel to the different major camps to conduct interviews of each US refugee applicant. Extensive interviews are conducted to determine their eligibility and to spot any holes in their stories. Checks are also made through the Department’s war crimes unit that investigates immigrants from conflict zones with historians and historical data.
Once it is determined that a refugee is eligible for asylum pursuant to the US laws, and their background clearance is completed, they can begin the process of actually coming to the US. The transition process is again extensive, and upon arrival US Customs and Border Protection agents run the refugees documentation through the system to verify identification and again check for any potential issues through the IBIS system. Again, so long as everything is in order and no “hits” result, the refugee is admitted.
While the refugee has already gone through an arduous process to reach the US, the security checks for the refugee does not end when they exit the US airport. The systematic failure that led to September 11th resulted in immense changes to the security checks in place in the interior as well. Once a refugee enters the United States, they are subject to intensive monitoring by federal law enforcement agencies. Refugee activities are closely monitored and persons are quickly identified by the agencies if there is any related suspicious activity. Once someone is flagged, they are closely monitored and additional vetting results, usually with an identification on a watch list. Depending on the circumstances, it can result in either federal criminal charges or deportation.
The fact is the US security system that vets and monitors refugees is comprehensive and fierce. It is a system that has seen recent dramatic overhauls. Like everything else, nothing is foolproof and nothing is immune to human error. But it is true that it is probably as good as it can get with minor room for improvement. The only system in the world that may be better is that of Israel, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to intel. The halting of the refugee process is not the answer to the American’s fears. As a country founded by refugees fleeing religious persecution, it is important for the public to fully understand the checks and balances in place so it can focus on more effective ways to combat terrorism.