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U.S. process of admitting Syrian refugees includes security vetting

Refugees crowded a refugee center in Presevo, Serbia, on Monday. The United States has agreed to take 10,000 in the next year.
Refugees crowded a refugee center in Presevo, Serbia, on Monday. The United States has agreed to take 10,000 in the next year. AP

The Paris attacks have reopened the controversy over U.S. plans to accept refugees from Syria. Here are some answers about the program, provided by the State Department and refugee agencies.

Q. Does the U.S. have a special program to admit Syrians?

A. Under pressure from the European and Middle Eastern nations bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, the Obama administration has pledged to admit at least 10,000 Syrians in the fiscal year that began in October. These are not new cases – they’ll come from 18,000 cases already referred by the United Nations and that are at varying stages of the screening process, officials say. Since June 2014, the U.N. has referred some 500 to 1,000 Syrians for resettlement in the United States each month, with a focus on the most vulnerable, such as female-headed households and victims of torture.

Referrals don’t always translate into resettlement – many cases hit long delays during extensive security checks. The average processing time for a resettlement case is 18 to 24 months, according to the State Department. Given that just 187 refugees were admitted in October, the first month of the new fiscal year, advocates say the administration must really pick up the pace if the goal of 10,000 is to be realized.

As of September, fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since 2012.

Q. What kind of screening do refugees undergo before entering the United States?

A. The State Department says Syrian refugees are subjected to the most intensive screening of any group, given the murkiness of the civil war they’re fleeing. Unlike in Iraq, where U.S. officials had access to the former government’s files and their own intelligence records, such background materials are much scarcer for Syria. Most details about the Syrian screening process are classified.

In general, cases begin with a referral from the U.N. office in the country where the applicant is living, primarily neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Support workers then collect biographic and other information from applicants to present to officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division, who determine whether the cases meet the criteria for refugee status based on five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Once cases meet the criteria, the next step is an extensive, multiagency security screening that involves the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and other agencies.

Refugees also must undergo a health screening for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis – the TB test alone can be a two-month process. And finally, there is mandatory cultural orientation, typically a three-day course about how to adapt to life in the United States.

Q. Is religion part of the screening test?

A. Religious persecution can be a reason to grant asylum, but a refugee’s religion is not a reason to deny asylum. Vulnerability is the top factor for approval in a resettlement case. As one official put it: “We don’t look at what god they worship, what church they go to.”

The official said he couldn’t think of any U.S. precedent for the kind of no-Muslims admissions policy some Republican politicians have floated as a way to prevent extremist infiltration of the refugee program.

Q. How is it determined where refugees are resettled in the United States? Where do most end up?

A. Refugees are resettled in about 180 communities nationwide, including Atlanta, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. Larger cities such as New York and Washington are considered too expensive and are generally excluded as resettlement destinations.

Officials say they also rely on medium-size cities such as Boise, Idaho; Nashville, Tenn.; Tucson, Ariz,; Buffalo, N.Y., and Erie, Pa.

Representatives from the nine resettlement agencies that work on the U.S. government program meet weekly to make placement decisions based on whether a refugee already has family in a certain area, has special medical needs such as cancer treatment, and a host of other factors.

The International Organization for Migration arranges travel to the United States for approved refugees. The U.S. government foots the bill up front, but refugees sign a promissory note agreeing to repay the loan for their travel costs.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

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