WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is assuring governors that refugees who come to the United States in its resettlement program undergo a "rigorous security vetting process," particularly if they are fleeing from Syria.
"In short, the security vetting for this population — the most vulnerable of individuals — is extraordinarily thorough and comprehensive," Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson write in letters sent to all state and territorial governors and to the mayor of Washington. D.C.
After last week's attacks in Paris by the Islamic State, several governors vowed to block efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. for fear their ranks would be infiltrated by IS militants planning a domestic attack. In the House, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to erect high hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
The administration countered that the vetting process was thorough and could take nearly three years. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will remain a welcoming place for refugees from around the world.
In their letters to governors, Kerry and Johnson said the vetting process is multi-layered and intensive and involves multiple law enforcement, national security and intelligence agencies and includes even more precautions for Syrian refugees. A copy of the letter addressed to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and dated Friday was obtained Saturday by The Associated Press.
Noting that more than 4 million people have fled Syria, the American officials say some of the closest U.S. allies and other nations are pledging to take in Syrian refugees. They say the plan to bring at least 10,000 to the U.S. this fiscal year "represents a modest commitment by our government." Most of the refugees, they add, are families, victims of torture and children.
A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel and admission to the U.S. until all required security checks have been completed and cleared, according to the letter to Cuomo. The vetting process includes:
— An interview with the U.N. high commissioner for refugees to determine if the applicant meets the definition of refugee and to see if any "red flags" would render the applicant ineligible.
— A referral by the UNHCR to the U.S., after which a resettlement support center contracted by the State Department conducts interviews, collects documents and initiates a security check conducted by the U.S. government.
— A biographic check conducted by the State Department that includes checking the applicant against names in the various law enforcement and intelligence databases and watch lists.
— A referral to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services at the Homeland Security Department, which oversees refugee status interviews and additional security vetting with a focus on security checks. Fingerprints are collected from those ages 14 to 79 and screened against records held by the FBI, the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Department.
— Personal refugee status interviews conducted by highly trained refugee officers of Citizen and Immigration Services, who have also received special training regarding Syrian refugees.
— A vetting by U.S. Customs and Border Protection before the applicant arrives at a port of entry, followed by additional background checks upon arrival.
— A determination of an appropriate resettlement site in the U.S. by the State Department and the Health and Human Services Department.
"With these measures in place, we believe that we are able to both protect the American people and maintain this nation's long-standing position as the world's beacon of hope and freedom," Kerry and Johnson write.