Refugees and the Vetting Process (Updated 3/6)

by: Kevin W

On January 27th, President Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. This action has drawn praise from supporters and the ire of civil rights lawyers. Those in favor of the order believe the steps outlined are necessary to keep Americans at home safe. Opponents like the American Civil Liberties Union believe the order to be a unconstitutional and immediately filed petitions of habeas corpus challenging the detention of hundreds of immigrants. In addition to those detained, tens of thousands had their travel plans interrupted as their visas were revoked.

That order was halted by a federal judge in Seattle, James Robart, and an appeals court upheld Robart’s ruling. While there were early indications that the White House would appeal the action all the way to the Supreme Court, they later backtracked and promised a new, revised immigration order in the coming weeks. 

[3/6 UPDATE]

The Trump administration issued a replacement executive order on Monday, March 6th, designed to hold up in court by addressing concerns cited in lawsuits against the original. These changes include:

  • The new order does not apply to current visa holders. The original order halted even those with valid visas from entering the country.
  • Immigrants from Iraq are exempt from the latest order due to Iraq’s status as an ally in the fight against ISIS. Iraq was one of seven countries named in the original order.
  • The latest order does not prioritize religious minorities as the previous order did. Opponents of the original argued that prioritizing religious minorities, such as Christians in the 7 named countries, amounted to discrimination against the Muslim majorities of those countries.

While Trump’s initial order took effect immediately, in an effort to prevent a rush of “bad dudes” from entering the country, this new order will be phased in over 10 days. The White House has not commented on the change of heart regarding the roll out time frame.

If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stated that “the Department of Justice believes that this executive order just as the first executive order is a lawful and proper exercise of presidential authority.” On the other side of the aisle, Democrats have decried the updated order, saying it is just a watered down version of the original Muslim ban with many of the same flaws.  We’ll update this story as the fight continues.


These executive orders have brought our current vetting process under scrutiny so in this post we will examine the refugee vetting process and explain the steps an applicant must go through before entering the United States. What did these immigrants do before arriving at this point? Let’s dive into some numbers and the current vetting process to find out.

Refugees by the Numbers

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were roughly 65.3 million people forcibly displaced in 2015, of which 21.3 were designated as refugees looking to leave their home country. As men, women and children look to escape war torn areas of the globe, many look to the United States for a chance to start over. According to the PEW Research Center, nearly 85,000 refugees entered the United States in 2016, 46% of which were Muslim, just slightly higher than the 44% of Christian refugees. All told, refugees make up less than 1% of the immigrants who lawfully enter the United States each year and are an even tinier portion of the worldwide refugee numbers.

The Vetting Process

Prior to entering the United States, a refugee must undergo an exhaustive interview process that can span anywhere from 18-24 months. The U.S. State Department outlines the process as follows:

The UNHCR collects information on applicants to determine if they meet the legal definition of a refugee, as well as basic biodata such as name, birth date and place, iris scans.

  1. The UNHCR collects information on applicants to determine if they meet the legal definition of a refugee, as well as basic biodata such as name, birth date and place, iris scans.
    • Less than 1% of applicants qualify to be resettled in a new, third country, with the United States being one of 26 destinations.
  2. From there, the UNHCR refers approved refugee applicants to the United States, where cases are processed by a Resettlement Support Center (RSC), organizations contracted by the State Department.
  3. The RSC collects further background information on the applicant in advance of an interview while working in conjunction with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Community. These screenings review:
    • Running the refugee’s name through global databases
    • Fingerprints
    • Family history
    • Potential criminal background
    • Ties to known groups or actors
    • Travel Patterns
    • Cell phone Records
    • Social Media Presence
  4. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reviews the collected information then conducts a series of in-person interviews
    • Applicants will be interviewed as many times as deemed necessary and are asked a series of questions to spot discrepancies from the acquired background information.
  5. USCIS-approved refugees undergo a medical screening to weed out applicants with contagious diseases
  6. Applicants take cultural orientation classes
  7. A resettlement location is chosen and travel is booked.
  8. Within a year of arriving, all refugees are required to apply for a green card which triggers another set of reviews.

The vetting process as it currently stands is fairly comprehensive, with thorough screenings each step of the way. A refugee with harmful intentions would need to jump through numerous legal hoops without raising any suspicion – as US officials note that if there is any “doubt about whether an applicant poses a security risk, they will not be admitted.” Despite this, Donald Trump has repeatedly railed against taking in additional refugees and has promised a system of “extreme vetting” to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country. The United States, however, already has one of, if not the most, stringent processes in the world.  Should the White House provide details on what extra measures will be taken, we’ll update this page accordingly.

Further Reading:

Trump’s Original 1/27/17 Executive Order on Immigration [Full text]

Updated 3/6/17 Executive Order [Full Text]

UNHCR: Refugee Resettlement to the United States Facts

The State Department’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program

The White House: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry Into the United States [Infographic]

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