Refugees 101

One of my friends who works extensively with refugees recently outlined the background check process. This info is also available on the State Department website. In the spirit of this blog, I hope to cultivate bridges through transparent, non-partisan information. Understanding how things work is step one:

First a refugee must register as a refugee seeking resettlement. This is done through the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees). They collect preliminary data on the refugee: name, age, place of origin, religion, flight story (why they left), and family members, as well as fingerprints. This information is then sent to the Refugee Support Center (RSC). This center is funded by the State Department. RSC conducts a lengthy investigation into the refugee. This includes multiple interviews by someone from the RSC. The information is also put into a database that is cross referenced to make sure the refugee is not already registered (if they left one refugee camp and went to another). The info is then sent to the US for a background check.

There are multiple agencies that participate in the background check:  the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Defense, and the Department of State, as well as the intelligence community. All of their data is sent back to the RSC. The background check checks for security threats, including connections to “bad actors” or people that wish our country harm, or those associated with people that wish us harm, and past immigration or criminal violations. For Syrian applicants, DHS conducts an additional enhanced review. Refugees are screened more carefully than any other type of traveler to the U.S. All of this info is then sent back to DHS where people who are trained to look into immigration affairs further investigate the candidate. They also do in-country interviews with the applicant and run his/her fingerprints again. The interview and fingerprint info is checked against data collected at the start of this process to make sure everything is still the same. If new information pops up, for example if a known relative is registered in the camp during the process, it will be halted while a background check is done on the relative to make sure no concerning information pops up about the relative. If at any point inconsistencies are found, the process is halted and the applicant is not allowed to resettle in the U.S. If everything checks out the applicant is, again, fingerprinted and rechecked. The prints are checked against the following systems: The FBI biometric database, the DHS biometric database, which includes watch-list information and previous immigration encounters in the U.S. and overseas, and the U.S. Department of Defense database, which includes fingerprints obtained around the world. Again, if inconsistencies or problematic results come back, the process is stopped and the applicant is denied resettlement. If not, the applicant goes onto cultural orientation (about America) and a medical check. Again, if all is well, the applicant is then referred to resettlement partners in America who then resettle them in America.

The US has been resettling refugees since 1975. Since 9/11 the US has resettled roughly 75,000 refugees.  About half of refugees that apply for resettlement in the U.S. are allowed to resettle here, and only about 2% are of “combat age”. About half the refugees admitted are children, and 25% are over the age of 60. Refugees are “loaned” the money to fly here, and after one year in the U.S. they must start paying the US government back for their airfare. The whole process from registration to setting foot on U.S. soil takes about 2 years.


About MikeG

I am an affordable housing developer and consultant. I build bridges to create compassionate, diverse communities. When we resolve conflicts, we strengthen our understanding of best practices toward collective well-being. I combine the value of inclusion with strategic planning, research skills that develop links from the seemingly unlinkable, and a passion for our interconnected lives to draft plans that succeed (photo by
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