Syrian refugees wanting to come to US are put through years of background checks, questioning

Over and over, Nedal Al-Hayk and his wife traveled up to three hours by bus from their temporary home in Jordan to an office where U.S. Homeland Security officials put them in separate rooms and asked them many questions in many different ways: Where were you born? Where were your parents born? Were you part of a rebel group? Were you politically outspoken?

Finally, nearly three years after the Syrian couple fled their war-ravaged homeland, they and their two young children arrived in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, ready to start a promising new life in a new country.

"I came here to succeed and have a quality of life, not to be a hindrance to the government and the citizens of America," said the 28-year-old Al-Hayk, who is working at a factory and studying English with hopes of pursuing the agricultural engineering degree he started in Syria. "Even if I need to start over, I'll start over."

As some governors, lawmakers and presidential candidates vow to block the resettlement of more Syrian refugees in the U.S. for fear that terrorists will slip into the country and carry out Paris-style attacks, those who have made it here describe an arduous screening process that they would not have undergone if they didn't want to make America their permanent home.

"They are human beings and human beings with no home," said Al-Hayk, who arrived in the U.S. seven months ago. "They ache to come to a country like America because they know the kinds of opportunities it grants to people."

The Obama administration, which has announced plans to accept about 10,000 Syrians refugees in addition to the 2,500 who have settled here since 2011, disclosed new details this week about how they are investigated.

They must undergo a screening process that can take nearly three years, during which they are fingerprinted and required to submit other biometric information, subjected to criminal and terrorist background checks and put through repeated rounds of questioning about their families, friends and political activities, authorities said.

The process takes so long that experts said it would be unlikely for an extremist group to rely on a refugee program to sneak someone into the U.S. Terrorist organizations could instead send operatives to America as students or tourists or appeal to people already living in the U.S. to carry out attacks.

Still, Al-Hayk said he understands the need for intensive questioning. For Al-Hayk, who has friends who died at sea trying to get to Europe, seeking asylum in the U.S. was far more time-consuming but less dangerous.

"To come to the U.S., you go through a very troublesome process, but it's justified because these agencies ... are doing their job and doing it very meticulously," he said, adding that he is "grateful for America, regardless of how long it took" to get here.

In Chicago, 35-year-old Hakam Subh, who also underwent a three-year vetting before coming to the U.S. in April, said he is happy and excited to have made it here with his wife and two young sons.

"I love it here. This is a safe country," he said. "I decided America is my country."


Associated Press writers Tammy Webber in Chicago and Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this story.