Amid the tragic events occurring in Paris and beyond, our society has responded with knee-jerk reactions that don’t fully consider security measures already in place that protect U.S. citizens while showing compassion to the world’s most vulnerable populations.
A refugee is defined as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality.” Refugee status is not granted automatically but given only after an individual’s claims have been evaluated.
The terms “refugee” and “asylum-seeker” are often used interchangeably, but their political meanings are very different. An asylum-seeker is “someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.” Asylum systems evaluate whether the individual or family unit actually qualifies for international protection. With mass refugee movements such as those occurring in Europe, there is no capacity to conduct individual interviews for all. This can result in groups being declared “prima facie” refugees.
Layers of review
Simply because one has “refugee” or “prima facie refugee” status does not make him or her eligible for resettlement to the United States. There is a long application process that includes health and background checks that refugees must complete prior to being considered for resettlement. Refugees are vetted through extensive background checks involving the Departments of State and Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI among other intelligence agencies. Background checks include the use of biometric data, and there is an added layer of review already in effect for Syrian refugee applicants.
Information obtained through background checks may be joined with data available from the source country. However, U.S. intelligence agencies rely largely on their own intelligence and the intelligence of their allies to determine whether a refugee will be cleared for resettlement to the United States. The average background check takes 18 to 24 months. Additional security measures are increasing the average time it takes to process Syrian applications beyond two years.
Of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since 9/11, three have been arrested for terrorist activities (two of the three were planning attacks outside of the U.S.). This rate of 0.38 is presumed to be much lower than the number of domestic terrorist attacks initiated by native-born U.S. citizens.
Syrian refugees entering Europe today would not be cleared for resettlement to the U.S. for a minimum of two years. The Departments of State and Homeland Security assess the backgrounds of every single refugee prior to entry to the U.S. to ensure that individuals are not a threat to U.S. citizens. Because of our geographic location, the U.S. will never receive the large number of Syrian asylum-seekers or prima facie refugees that European nations are experiencing.
The Obama administration agreed to accept 85,000 refugees in 2016, of which 10,000 were anticipated to be Syrian. Currently, there are just under 4.3 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. Because the administration has agreed to take less than 0.25 percent of registered refugees, the U.S. can be extremely selective about who is accepted. If an individual poses any security concerns, he or she will not be approved for resettlement.
Over 4 million Syrians are awaiting safe options that address their displacement. As a nation of immigrants, the U.S. has a history of accepting and welcoming those fleeing persecution. We can resettle the world’s most vulnerable populations while preserving the security of U.S. citizens. It does not and should not be one option at the expense of the other. The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program has been ensuring the safe resettlement of refugees in thousands of communities across the nation since 1980. Its track record is proven.
Holly Sienkiewicz, DrPH, director of research at the UNC Greensboro Center for New North Carolinians, serves on the board of the Association for Refugee Service Professionals.