In light of the widely condemned executive order temporarily banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries that was issued on Friday, one of the ongoing questions has been how, precisely, we vet refugees and whether President Trump’s proposed “extreme vetting” will be a tangible or effective change to the status quo. It’s worth contrasting the current policy against what the Trump administration is proposing, not least because there may simply not be any more extremes to reach.
Contrary to popular belief, being resettled in the US as a refugee is a complicated process few complete. “Refugee” is, legally speaking, a specific political status that most immigrants simply don’t qualify for.
Indeed, the possibility is so relatively rare that according to libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute, only 3.25 million refugees (roughly one percent of the current US population) were admitted into the US with refugee status between 1975 and 2015.
Before these refugees could even get here, they had to go through the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and they had to meet both US standards and UNHCR standards for refugee status. If they failed either standard, that would be the end of the process. If granted that status, refugees were then checked against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, CLASS, to see if they’ve ever been denied a visa. They were then run through the NCIC to see if they get a “hit” showing evidence of a previous arrest. Refugees within a certain range of ages are also subjected to an interagency background check. In short, if any refugee has ever been visible to any of America’s law enforcement, that puts their status at risk.
In addition, there are three biometric checks, a health screening, interviews, cultural orientation classes, and the search for a resettlement agency. Once all that’s done, there’s yet another background check, and refugees are also screened by the Border Patrol and TSA, all while trying to maintain a life overseas. Oh, and once you arrive, you have six months to pay the government for your plane ticket. Mostafa Hassoun, a Syrian refugee, offered a personal perspective on the process for Politico:
Over 15 months I was interviewed five times – in person, over the phone, by the United Nations and by the United States. They asked me about my family, my politics, my hobbies, my childhood, my opinions of the U.S., and even my love life. No less than four U.S. government agencies had the opportunity to screen me. By the time I received my offer to live in the United States, the U.S. officials in charge of my case file knew me better than my family and friends do.
Hassoun is one of 12,500 Syrian refugees who has been allowed in the United States out of the 5 million worldwide. Gina Kassem, who oversees the State Department’s refugee programs in North Africa laid out to 60 Minutes how the Department approaches who gets status:
Mostly we focus on victims of torture, survivors of violence, women-headed households, [and] a lot of severe medical cases. It is single digits how many single young men would be part of our resettlement program.
The net result? Of those 3.25 million refugees who have been admitted into the US since 1975, twenty have become terrorists. Or, for those who prefer concrete numbers, a failure rate of roughly 0.006%. But of course, even one terrorist is too many.
What Can Be Improved?
The policy for what “extreme vetting” means, in this context, appears to still be in the process of being constructed. Much of Trump’s executive order on Friday demands the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security create a policy. It does, however, contain a broad overview of Trump’s stated goals:
In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.
This aligns with Trump’s previous statements on the issue, such as his desire to institute an ideological screening test that he mentioned on the campaign trail. But details have been thin on the ground otherwise, and it appears only incremental improvements, at best, have genuinely been proposed.
So far, the only idea that’s been implemented is a social media check, and that wasn’t Trump’s idea. Following on a proposed idea from June, US Customs and Border Protection began requesting social media data in December from those using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA. This system allows certain travelers to come to the US for up to 90 days without a visa.
Another idea, which has general support, would be to improve information sharing. Not every nation has the same public records law as the United States, which can make accessing some records, such as arrests, difficult. In some cases, however, such as Syria, there simply may be no reliable records available. While Trump’s order requires that new information be provided by other countries, it’s not clear what will happen if US immigration requests data that these countries cannot, physically or legally, provide. Though, one can theorzie that, at least for the seven countries on the ban list, it may mean a continuation of that status.
Do We Need A More Extreme System?
A great concern for many is that, besides the hazards of applying broad restrictions that keep out innocent refugees in a deep need of assistance (both to them and our reputation around the world), is that we can’t make the system more extreme without causing discrimination, intentional or accidental.
It’s widely believed in legal circles that Trump’s executive order directly violates the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which replaced quotas based on country of origin with the visa-based system used today. The order was also heavily criticized for, without directly stating such, preferring Christian immigrants over Muslims from Muslim majority countries.
Again, one terrorist is too many, but most acts of terrorism on US soil are performed by US citizens, either naturalized or born in America and later radicalized. No citizens from the countries banned have participated in American terrorism in the 21st century. Which means that no amount of “extreme vetting” would have caught any domestic terrorist because none of them were refugees at the time. To combat the rise of these kinds of terrorists, we’ll need to focus on why, precisely, some Americans choose to attack their fellow citizens on American soil, a question far more complex than any executive order can solve.
In the end, making it harder for refugees to come here may be little more than a distraction from real issues of public safety.