Resettlement agency works to shine light on refugee vetting process
The head of an agency that resettles refugees in Connecticut is holding workshops across the state to help people better understand how refugees are vetted before they arrive in the United States.
Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a nonprofit in New Haven, said the United States historically has had the largest refugee resettlement program in the world.
But he said misinformation about the screening process was one reason the U.S. didn't respond more generously to the Syrian refugee crisis. The U.S. increased the number of refugees it admits to about 85,000 in 2016, up from about 70,000, but fewer than resettlement agencies across the country had requested. He also said misstatements were made during the presidential campaign.
"The process can take 18 to 24 months, sometimes even longer," George said. "It is the most rigorous screening process for any refugee in the world and it is by far the hardest way for anyone outside the United States to enter the country ... At the end of this process, if there's any doubt at all about the accuracy or the honesty of your answers, boom you're off the list. We don't take chances, and thousands of refugees have been screened out during the process."
George has explained the process at rotary clubs and town halls, and on Wednesday evening stood before 16 people at the Wallingford Public Library.
In a role-playing scenario that George has developed to help people understand the real-life vetting process, he acted the part of a U.S. State Department Official. Three audience members sitting in the front row of the community room are pretending they are a refugee family of three: a mother, a father and a 9-year-old daughter who live in a refugee camp in Jordan after fleeing Homs in Syria. Other audience members played roles, such as a United Nations official or a relative in the United States.
The family fled after the father's bakery was bombed, the daughter witnessed four people die from a bombing, and the mother was tortured.
The vetting process occurs overseas, George explained. First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN's refugee agency, provides the U.S. with a list of families that are especially in need of resettlement.
The United States will interview the family to understand why they had to flee and ensure they meet the international law definition of a refugee: someone who fled their country because of persecution.
The family will return for a second and then a third interview.
During the interviews, the families are asked questions about their background. The information they provide includes a list of all the addresses and phone numbers they've had throughout their life, the date they were married, passports, birth certificates, diplomas, business invoices, photos, cellphones and social media accounts. The process also includes biometric testing and fingerprints.
George said FBI forensic experts will analyze the documents to ensure they are not fraudulent. All information gathered from the interviews will be shared with the CIA, FBI and all U.S. government intelligence branches, as well as checked against international terrorist watch lists and international criminal databases.
The refugees also will go through a health-screening process.
The refugees are asked if they have any friends or relatives in the United States who could help welcome them, George said. If not, the refugees arbitrarily will be assigned to any state in the country. The refugees pay for their own airfare through a loan.
IRIS is one of 350 resettlement agencies across the country and one of three in Connecticut that welcomes refugee families into the United States and helps them get set up in their new life. A community organization, church, synagogue or another entity also can co-sponsor a family with IRIS.
IRIS welcomed 500 of the 900 refugees that came to Connecticut in 2016, according to the nonprofit agency.
Critics say the vetting process is flawed and that it's impossible to screen out all potential terrorists. President Donald Trump has issued two travel bans, which are tied up in court.
'A spotlight in the darkness'
For Haitham Dalati, a 64-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in February in New Haven, the screening process is a recent memory.
In an interview at the IRIS offices in New Haven, he described how he fled in 2012 from Homs to Lebanon.
Dalati was at home one night, when he heard voices and people crying and saw people running fast. His neighbor pleaded with him to leave, saying the situation was not safe. He fled his home, and about 20 minutes later his house was bombed.
He and his wife drove to Lebanon, where they were joined two months later by their daughter, her husband and four children.
He registered with the United Nations as a refugee, but it wasn't until June of 2016 that he got a call from the U.N.
"I thought maybe now this is a spotlight in the darkness," he said.
According to a UNHCR fact sheet, less than 1 percent of the world's more than 21.3 million refugees are resettled. UNHCR refers the most vulnerable cases to host countries, and the refugees cannot choose their host country.
The U.N. told Dalati he would go to France, but he asked if he could go to an English-speaking country since he knew English and it isn't easy for him to learn another language. He was called a few days later and told he would be resettled in the United States.
He said he and his family were interviewed for hours multiple times over the next months, including at the United Nations office, an agency in Beirut that is a Resettlement Support Center that the U.S. State Department contracts with, and the U.S. Embassy.
He said he answered any questions he was asked, including personal questions, family questions, questions about any connections to politics or where he spent his military service.
He said he was fingerprinted and his retinas were scanned. He stood up and swore to follow the laws and regulations of the United States.
His papers went through a security check-up. He had a medical exam.
A few months later, he was told that he had passed the security process. Two weeks later, he was given a date for the flight to the United States.
He then found out that he couldn't travel on that date, due to President Trump's travel ban. He later was able to leave and he and his wife arrived in the United States on Feb. 10.
He said he thinks that their age may have been taken into account during the screening process, making the process shorter for them compared to his daughter and her husband and four children, who have not been cleared, or denied, to come to the United States.
Dalati said his next challenge is to find a job, which he has been searching for.
Dalati said he wants people to understand that it is not easy to gain admission to the United States as a refugee.
"I saw others that went to other countries, it was all very simple, but for the United States, it's so hard, so hard," he said.
The screening process entails:
8 U.S. federal government agencies
6 security databases
5 background checks
4 biometric security checks
2 inter-agency security checks
Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees