U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-American lawyer who came to the U.S. as a refugee, outlined the country's existing refugee-screening process as officials debate the vetting of Syrian refugees.

Mayorkas, who with his family came to the U.S. as a refugee, said the refugees seeking admission into the U.S. undergo the "most intense security vetting of any immigrant seeking admission to our nation." Before a U.S. government agency considers any refugee, the individual is first screened to determine if he or she is eligible through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). With UNHCR, the U.S. agency first interviews refugees about several questions ranging from the current conditions of their home country, their claim of persecution and status of families members abroad. The UNHCR also probes the refugees for any possible "red flags" that specifically relates to the laws of the U.S.

Mayorkas said the UNCHR's personnel received training from U.S. experts to familiarize with the country's rules of inadmissibility and national security requirements UNHCR would then prioritizes refugees for referral based on determination of vulnerability.

"The most vulnerable are referred to our nation. Examples of priority profiles include victims of torture, single females and individuals with family ties in the United States," said Mayorkas during a press call on Monday afternoon, noting a refugee must first establish that he or she has been persecuted or a "well-rounded fear" of persecution based on political opinion, social groups, race, religion or nationality.

From UNHCR, a refugee referral is sent to the U.S. Department of State, who, with partnerships with resettlement support centers, conducts another set of interviews with the refugee applicant and their family members. During the second round of interviews, the resettlement support centers collect any identity documents from the refugee and determine if the applicant has had any other aliases.

"For every single refugee applicant, the Department of State then initiates a security check of the individual using its consular look out and support-system database ... the Department of State does not reply on UNHCR or the resettlement support center to conduct the database check," said Mayorkas. "This security check ... searches the database for such things as criminal history, immigration history, terrorism-related concerns and any prior visa application dispositions."

Certain groups of individuals, who are deemed to pose heightened security concerns, including single males from Iraq or Syria between the ages of 16 and 50, will participate in an additional round of security checks known as the "Security Advisory Opinion" (SAO)." Mayorkas explained the SAO process includes other law enforcement and intelligence databases.

If a refugee applicant passes the State Department’s security checks, after the UNCHR vet process, then the refugees’ package of information is prepared for review by the DHS, specifically for its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency. Mayorkas said the USCIS then initiates “yet another and more intense” security check process for each and every refugee applicant. If the refugee passes the USCIS security check, then he or she is referred to a “very experienced” USCIS highly-trained refugee officer for another interview.

He continued, “The interview is conducted in-person after fingerprints and photograph of the refugee applicant have been obtained and those are run through additional databases of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Defense.”

The Cuban-American said a refugee cannot be approved for admission until after the individual passes the USCIS’ officer’s interview and after the interview is reviewed by a supervisor.

The entire U.S. vetting process can take 18 to 24 months, on average. And if an individual passes all the security checks and interviews, the refugee is sent back to the resettlement support center for medical screening and confirming of U.S. sponsorship. But eight days before the refugee is allowed to enter the U.S., he or she's biographical information is released to the DHS' Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. CBP will screen the refugee for an additional database search, while another background check will occur once the refugee steps foot into the U.S.

"This is a most comprehensive, multi-layered and exhaustive process," said Mayorkas.


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