The Truth about Refugees: They Undergo Rigorous Vetting Process and States Cannot Reject Them

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The recent terror attacks in Paris have caused heartbreak and concern throughout the world. Here in the U.S., reports that a fake Syrian passport believed to belong to one of the Le Stade de France stadium suicide bombers was found at the scene of the attack have set off a firestorm of controversy over the U.S.’s role in resettling Syrian refugees. To date, twenty-seven (27) governors, including Pat McCrory in North Carolina, have publicly requested to the federal government to not resettle Syrian refugees in their states. These events raise questions for many over how the U.S. is vetting refugees and what power state governors have over who may live in their states.

The simple truth of the matter is this: Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted class of immigrants in the U.S., and state governors have no legal authority to refuse them.

Here’s an overview of the procedure a refugee must undergoes before relocating to the U.S.:

The Refugee Vetting Process
First, potential refugees are identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).[1] The internationally recognized legal definition of a refugee is someone who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and who is unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of their home country’s government. In other words, the UNHCR officials first determine whether or not an individual faces a specific threat in their country of origin due to some special characteristic they possess.

Second, if UNCHR officials determine an individual faces a specific threat and not simply the general conditions of war or crime in their home country, the UNHCR will designate a country for resettlement including, potentially, the U.S.[2] Once UNHCR has referred a potential refugee for resettlement to the U.S., the U.S. Department of State (DOS), through intelligence and security contractors, compiles the potential refugee’s personal data and submits that individual for background checks using biometric (finger prints and facial recognition) and biographic (name, date-of-birth, and national ID number(s)) data.

Third, if the DOS’s biometric and biographic background checks have not uncovered a criminal record or history of suspicious activities in any country of former residence, the individual will be referred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a personal, one-on-one interview with a U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) officer. The USCIS officer interviews the individual to (1) confirm that they meet the legal definition of a “refugee,” and (2) to determine if they have any history of suspicious or unlawful activity. USCIS officers are specially trained in evaluating an interviewee’s credibility and identifying inconsistencies in an interviewee’s statements. If the officer has reason to believe the individual has been involved in criminal or suspicious activity, the case will be referred for a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO), or a clearance from a number of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies including DOS, DHS, the Department of Defense (DOD), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Fourth, if the USCIS official is satisfied after the one-on-one interview that the potential refugee meets the legal requirements and does not pose a security threat, the officer will conditionally approve the individual and refer them for medical screening. All potential immigrants are screened to ensure they do not carry certain contagious diseases. DHS then matches the potential refugee with a designated Refugee Sponsor Agency—a nonprofit resettlement agency operating in the U.S.—to facilitate travel and orientation to the U.S.

Fifth, prior to departure and admission to the U.S., the potential refugee is subjected to another round of biometric and biographic background checks to ensure there has been no new suspicious or criminal activity since the first round of checks, which at this point may have occurred many months prior. If those checks come back clear, the individual then travels to the U.S. where they are screened again by DHS, Customs and Border Protection (“Border Patrol”) officers. Altogether, the typical refugee resettlement process takes approximately one-year to eighteen (18) months , or longer.

Finally, once the refugee has relocated to the U.S., they cannot become a Lawful Permanent Resident (or “green card holder”) for one year, and cannot become a U.S. citizen for at least five-years. At any point before becoming a citizen, if the individual engages in certain illegal activity they may be deported. Even after becoming a citizen, if the government determines the individual obtained citizenship illegally or through misrepresentation, they may be de-naturalized.

Since the 1980’s not a single person who was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee has committed or attempted a terrorist act.[3] To date, the U.S. has only admitted approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011. That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.2 million Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR.

The Role of the States in Refugee Resettlement
Despite the fact that those seeking refuge in the U.S. are thoroughly vetted through multiple U.S. agencies prior to arrival to the U.S., the governors of more than half the United States have publicly requested the federal government not to resettle Syrians in their states. The truth of the matter is that states simply do not have the authority to determine who is allowed to live there.

First, the U.S. Constitution specifically delegates the power to regulate naturalization—predecessor to our current, comprehensive immigration and naturalization legal system—exclusively to the legislative branch of the federal government. Additionally, the Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause explicitly allows the free travel of people between states. States simply cannot restrict travel based on one’s immigration status. And finally, as it pertains to refugees specifically, in the Refugee Act of 1980, Congress delegated the President “explicit statutory authorization to accept foreign refugees to the United States.” Thus, only the President, pursuant to legislative delegation, has the authority to determine the admission of refugees to the U.S. Once in the U.S., states cannot bar refugees from travelling from state-to-state.

Ultimately, the fact is that refugees are thoroughly vetted and governors cannot rationally prevent them from coming to their states. These declarations by governors that they do not want to Syrian refugees are not based on facts or reason, but instead appeal to the fears and heartbreak of U.S. residents. A political policy that is based on fear and emotion rather than facts or reason is called demagoguery. We at Charlotte Immigration Law Firm are confident that the U.S. will continue to accept refugees from around the world and will do so in a responsible, secure way—regardless of the rhetoric of demagogues.


[1] Created in 1950 principally to deal with the refugee crises of World War II, the UNHCR now operates in 125 worldwide and is tasked with administering the legal procedures concerning refugees to which 145 nations have agreed.

[2] Currently, the U.S. has agreed to accept up to 70,000 refugees annually (though, partially in response to the refuges crisis in Syria, the Obama administration has increased that number to 100,000 by 2017).

[3] To be clear, the Tsarnaev brother who committed the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings entered the U.S. as children from Kyrgyzstan with “derivative asylum status” after their parents entered the U.S. with tourist visas and then applied for and received asylum. Most reports explain the brothers became radicalized while growing up in the U.S.

This post originally appeared on Charlotte Immigration Law Firm. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Benjamin A. Snyder is an associate immigration attorney at Charlotte Immigration Law Firm. Originally from Manassas, Virginia, Mr. Snyder moved to North Carolina in 2003. Mr. Snyder earned his Bachelor of Arts from Guilford College and his Juris Doctor from Elon University School of Law, both in Greensboro, North Carolina. While at Elon, Ben worked in the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, where he received the annual Commitment to Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic Award in recognition of his exceptional service to clients. At Elon Law, Mr. Snyder also served as President of the Elon Law ACLU, as Co-Director of the Pro Bono Board, and as a Case Manager for the Innocence Project. As a member of the Moot Court Board, Mr. Snyder competed in the American College of Trial Lawyers National Moot Court Competition and wrote the problem and bench brief for the Elon Law 2012 Billings Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition. In recognition of his student leadership and community service, Mr. Snyder was awarded the 2012 David Gergen Award for Leadership and Professionalism, Elon Law’s highest honor for a graduating student. Prior to joining Charlotte Immigration Law Firm, Mr. Snyder worked at law firms in Greensboro and Charlotte focusing on immigration law. Mr. Snyder’s practice is 100% devoted to immigration law. Mr. Snyder represents clients in all manner of immigration matters, including employment and family based immigration petitions, nonimmigrant visa applications, consular processing, and immigration removal defense. Mr. Snyder is admitted to the North Carolina Bar, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.