Guest Columnists

System to admit newcomers already extreme, onerous

Mushabah Alfani and tutor Alice McCabe, both of Cedar Rapids, find Morocco on a world map during a language lesson at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Alfani fled the Democratic Republic of Congo  during the Congolese Civil Wars and was at a refugee camp in Zambia for several years before being settled in Columbus, Ohio, as a refugee. He moved to Cedar Rapids in 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Mushabah Alfani and tutor Alice McCabe, both of Cedar Rapids, find Morocco on a world map during a language lesson at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Alfani fled the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congolese Civil Wars and was at a refugee camp in Zambia for several years before being settled in Columbus, Ohio, as a refugee. He moved to Cedar Rapids in 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

We need extreme vetting of refugees, says President Donald Trump. So five days into office, Trump ordered a 120-day ban on all refugees entering the United States. During that time the Secretary of State, the Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Homeland Security must review the refugee screening process to make sure refugees do not threaten the safety and well-being of Americans. As of this writing, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has halted Trump’s refugee ban. Trump vows to rewrite and reissue this executive order. Making sure refugees will not harm Americans — that sounds good and reasonable. What is wrong with keeping Americans safe? I agree, we must keep Americans safe. But Trump’s rhetoric implies a flimsy vetting process through which terrorists could con their way into the United States. Is this likely or even possible? To find out, let’s ask this question: Could you pass the refugee vetting process?


Here “refugee” means a legal entry status into the United States. Only those who obtain this status enter the U.S. as refugees. Could you qualify as a refugee? To obtain refugee status in the U.S. you must first meet the United Nation’s definition of a refugee. The U.N. defines a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Put simply, the U.N. recognizes you as a refugee only if you have fled your birth country because of who you are or what you believe and cannot return because you fear for your safety.

Did you flee war or violence? Were you tortured or raped? Did you see your family members slaughtered? Did you run from your home and lose family members in the chaos of flight? Do you not know whether your family members are alive? Many refugees would answer “yes” to at least one these questions.

To obtain the designation “refugee,” you must show the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that you meet the criteria of a refugee. Economic and personal tragedy do not suffice. If you can’t find a job and move to better your economic situation, sorry, you are not a refugee. If you fled your home because of war, but still are inside your country, you are labeled an IDP — an internally displaced person. IDPs do not count as refugees.


You go to a UNHCR office or refugee camp and apply for recognition as a refugee. You must show the UNHCR any identifying documents you still might possess and give your biodata (e.g.: name, address, birthday, place of birth, names of your parents and family members). If you are from Syria or other Middle Eastern countries, they scan your iris. Next, a U.N. staff member interviews you to determine if you qualify as a refugee. You will be interviewed by U.N. personnel at least three times before your case can proceed. I say interview, but they feel like interrogations. Interviews might last four to seven hours. Months can pass between each interview. They ask you many detailed questions. “Where are you from?” “Why did you leave your country?” “Have you ever been detained or arrested?” “Have you or your family ever been involved in any political, religious, military, ethnic or social organization?” The questions turn personal and intrusive. “The man who raped you, what was he wearing?” “Can you describe the gun that the military officer used to shoot your cousin?” If you apply as a refugee with your spouse, the UNHCR will interview your spouse in a separate room. They ask many of the same questions in different ways. Your answers are compared to your spouse’s answers. Inconsistency will boot you out of the process.

If the U.N. designates you as a refugee, you join a group of more than 21 million people who bear the label “refugee.” Although you now are a “refugee,” you have only a 1 in 100 chance of being resettled in a country such as the United States. Most of the remaining 99 percent of refugees will continue to live in the country to which they fled. Some might voluntarily return to their home country. The U.N. prioritizes only the most vulnerable populations for resettlement in a third-party nation. Most refugees who gain entry to the U.S. come from countries of special humanitarian concern to the U.S. government. If you are from a country such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, Iran, Afghanistan, you can be referred to the U.S. as a refugee. Mexico isn’t on the list.


If you beat the odds and they select you to be resettled in the U.S., the U.N. will refer you to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Now the vetting process begins in earnest. You must go to a Resettlement Support Center (RSC). The RSC collects your documents, creates a file for your case, and gathers the information to begin the biographic security checks. Multiple U.S. security agencies screen you and your family to begin these security checks. The National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department independently screen you to answer these questions: “Do you pose a security risk? Do you have connections to any bad actors (e.g.: terrorists, terrorist groups, narco-trafficers, human-trafficking rings)? Have you been charged with any crimes? Do you have any immigration or criminal violations? If is answer to any of those questions is “Yes” or if the agencies’ findings disagree, you cannot come to the U.S. as a refugee.


If you are from Syria, they review your case multiple times in greater detail. If you forgot information or have to update any information, the U.S. security agencies must rescreen your case.

If you pass the initial U.S. security agency checks, you face specially trained employees of the State Department. Your children and elders who are older than 65 undergo two separate background checks. You and your spouse must endure three separate background checks. If your name appears in any criminal or terrorist database, you will not enter the U.S.

Next, U.S. government agents fingerprint you and your family. They run your fingerprints three times against the biometric databases of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. These databases include terrorist watchlists, criminal records, previous immigration encounters in the U.S. or worldwide, and fingerprint records captured in Iraq and elsewhere. A hit in one of these databases will prevent your case from advancing until U.S. security agencies can show you aren’t a security risk.

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) now reviews your case. If you are from Syria, your case will be reviewed twice and will be run through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) fraud detection unit. Next, a DHS officer interviews you for several hours. A sketchy background or large family size could extend this interview process for several days. They ask many personal questions and compare your answers to those of your family. If they discover new information they will re-interview you and perform additional security checks. You will have to wait 18 to 24 months or more while they complete all these security checks.

If you pass all security checks, you must then pass a medical screening. You are screened for any public health threat such as active tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, Hansen’s disease (leprosy), polio, smallpox, plague, and yellow fever. They also screen you for dangerous mental disorders and substance abuse. If you have any of these conditions, you must receive treatment and/or be cured before entering the United States.

After the health screening, you must take classes to orient you to U.S. cultural norms. Only now will the U.S. government determine where to place you in the U.S. If you already have family in the U.S., they try to resettle you near family. They consider any health problems affected by weather or climate (e.g., asthma) in their decision where to place you. Throughout the process, your application continually is rechecked against terrorist databases. If any point in the process raised the possibility that you are a security risk to the U.S. or its citizens, you will not enter the country.


If you made it this far, the International Organization for Migration will now schedule your flights to enter the United States. Before you enter the country, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will screen you through its National Targeting Center-Passenger (NTCP). Before boarding the plane, the CBP will run your face, fingerprints, and iris scans (in the case of Syrians) against national databases to determine if you pose a terrorist threat. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also will subject you to its Secure Flight Program. The Secure Flight Program runs your name against government watchlists and will prevent you from boarding a place if you are on the No Fly List.

Congratulations! You have entered the United States as a refugee. You probably began this process three to five years ago. You were interviewed between nine and 15 times. You might have lived in a refugee camp for 20 years. Your children were born in the camp and never knew your home country.

Now you can begin a new life for yourself and your family.


Once you have lived in the United States for one year, you are required to apply for legal permanent residency. When you apply for your green card, the U.S. government again runs security screenings and background checks on you. To obtain a green card, you must show you have a good moral character. Any arrests, DUIs, or serious criminal convictions could very well prevent you from obtaining a green card. After living in the United States for five years, you can apply to become a United States citizen. To become a citizen you must pass additional criminal background and security checks. You again will be fingerprinted and you must pass the FBI name check which searches your name against FBI databases. You also must pay a fee and pass English and civics tests. You pass these tests and take the Oath of Allegiance before a judge.

Congratulations! Now you are a U.S. citizen.


Could you pass the vetting process to enter the U.S. as a refugee? Many native-born U.S. citizens could not. No country vets refugees more carefully and thoroughly than does the United States.

Last year, the U.S. admitted 85,000 refugees. The same year the U.S. received 42.8 million international visitors. These 42.8 million visitors are vetted less often than are refugees. Since 1975, more than 3 million people have entered the U.S. as refugees. No person admitted as a refugee has carried out a fatal terrorist attack on American soil. Reports circulating online which say otherwise are false.

A CATO Institute report released last September estimated the probability of an American being murdered in a refugee terrorist attack as 1 in 3.64 billion per year. Your odds of death by hitting a deer with your car is 1 in 2 million per year. So you are 1,820 times more likely to die in a car accident caused by a deer than to be killed by a refugee terrorist. No one is giving up driving because they fear suicidal deer. Likewise, we shouldn’t fear refugees. The refugee vetting process works.

If I were a terrorist wanting to attack the United States, would I enter as a refugee or as a visitor? If entering the United States as a visitor is like stealing money from a lemonade stand, entering as a refugee is like robbing Fort Knox.

For the more than 21 million refugees recognized by the U.N., America’s vetting process is more than extreme. It’s onerous.

• Caleb lives and works in Cedar Rapids. He has worked with refugees since 2011. Research for this article included conversations with refugees, employees of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration who are familiar with the Refugee vetting process. Comments:

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.



The presidential election of 2016 will be scrutinized and analyzed for as long as there are political scientists around to do it. Why? Because the contributing factors were so complicated. The question is: How did it come to pass ...

Most Iowans can agree that people shouldn't have to stay in jail just because they aren't rich. Yet that is the way our bail and bond system sometimes works. Whether you have to stay in jail too often depends on your ability to pa ...

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.