Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Press Briefing on Refugee Screening - Actually Informative!

That was quite a good presser they did yesterday on the subject of Syrian refugee screening and admissions. I doubt it will have much impact on the domestic politics of the situation, but it was nicely detailed about the resources the USG applies to refugee vetting and it had information I hadn't seen elsewhere, such as the number of refugees currently being screened, their demographic breakdown, and the denial rate so far.

Hi, everybody. This is Senior Administration Official One speaking. Thank you for your attention today to our program that admits refugees to the United States. It’s been a successful program that has been running since the mid-1970s, the post-Vietnam War era. Over that time, 3 million refugees have come and successfully resettled in the United States.

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So I want to reassure you all that all refugees of all nationalities considered for admission to the United States undergo intensive security screening, and this involves multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies. And we do this to ensure that those admitted are not known to pose a threat to our country. The safeguards that are used include biometrics, or fingerprint and biographic checks, and a lengthy in-person overseas interview that is carried out by specially trained DHS – Department of Homeland Security – officers, who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States.

Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. And we continue to examine options for further enhancement for screening refugees, the details of which are classified. But the classified details are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO" emphasized the whole-of-government effort involved:
Again, this is a part of our program that is extremely interdisciplinary. It’s a lot of different federal agencies. So on the operational front, while the State Department and USCIS take the lead overseas, when it comes to doing the security vetting we have law enforcement and intelligence community colleagues who are really integral parts of the program.

So refugee applicants of all nationalities go through both biographic – that’s name and date of birth and other biographic elements – and also biometric security checks. So we check fingerprints for all refugee applicants. Collecting that information and coordinating those checks is a shared responsibility between the Department of State and DHS. And then, as I mentioned, the – it’s other agencies within the federal government, including the FBI, the Department of Defense, and others, who actually vet the information of the refugee applicants against those other holdings.

-- Snip --

What I’ve been describing up till now are checks that are for refugee applicants of all nationalities, but with the Syria program we also instituted an additional set of screening that we call the Syria Enhanced Review. So for Syrian refugee applicants, all of those cases are reviewed at headquarters by refugee specialists ahead of time. And there’s a file that’s already been created by virtue of their registration with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and through their first administrative contact with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. So there’s information there about where the refugee has come from, what caused him or her to flee, what their experience was. And depending on what we see in that file, we review certain cases with national security indicators to a special part of our agency – our Fraud Detection and National Security unit. And they can do individualized research using classified and unclassified records and give – prepare information back for the individual refugee adjudicator that’s individualized to that case.

This is Official Number Three from [title withheld]. A couple of points to make here on behalf of the larger intelligence community as relates to this process. The refugee vetting and screening process has really benefitted, in a lot of ways, from the lessons that we learned with respect to information sharing for CT purposes since 9/11. Over those years, we’ve managed to refine and enhance the degree to which we can compare information in the communities’ holdings, representing all the different agencies against refugee and other types of traveler data. So the refugees as a population get the same type of attention that we apply to many other classes of traveler, only it’s more intensive on the refugee side for the very process reasons that you’ve heard outlined by the two preceding officials. So we’ve integrated a lot of the data that relates to CT and can use it to adjudicate the biographic and the biometric information that we have coming in from the adjudicating agencies.

Then it was the press's turn. Brad Klapper of Associated Press asked "What is your refusal rate? How many have you denied resettlement – percentage or total"?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. Let me talk about the first part of your question first, in terms of what our acceptance and approval rates are. Right now, our approval rate is a little over 50 percent, but the other half of that – the other 50 percent includes both denials and cases that are still pending. And so a number of those cases that are still pending may ripen into approvals, and in fact, we expect that that approval rate will edge up a bit above the 50 percent. But that’s where we are right now. As you know, we haven’t – for us, in terms of interviewing these applicants, it’s relatively new for us to be seeing large numbers. And there are some cases that post – after the interview, come back to headquarters for another round of review, and so some of those cases don’t have a final decision yet at this point.

Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press, asked whether state Governors can refuse to accept refugees. "I’m just curious – yesterday a lot of the news was governors saying they would not accept Syrian refugees. I just hope you could talk a little bit about what roles governors or their administrations play or don’t play – maybe more importantly – in this process."

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. This is Speaker One again. So this is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law, and refugees arriving in the U.S. are protected by the Constitution and federal law. And they are required to apply to adjust their status to become a legal permanent resident within one year of arriving in the United States. So he or she is also free to move anywhere in the country, although we set up that some of the state benefits they get may be available to the refugee only in the state that they’re originally resettled to.

William LaJeunesse of Fox News asked "can you give me a rough demographic breakdown of, say, the 2,500 Syrians we’ve taken in recently – women, children, those under 18, that kind of thing"?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children; [2.5 percent] are adults over 60. And I think you will have heard that only 2 percent are single males of combat age. So we – there’s slightly more – it’s roughly 50/50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not – not a lot more men. So this is normal that as you’re – as we set a priority of bringing the most vulnerable people, we’re going to have female-headed households with a lot of children, and we’re going to have extended families that are maybe missing the person who used to be the top breadwinner but have several generations – grandparents, a widowed mother, and children.

I assume the politics of refugee admission will roll on according to their own election year logic, regardless of what our apparatchiks know or don't know about the matter. But at least I'm better informed!


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