Refugees are al­ready well-vet­ted. I vet­ted them.

For­mer im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer Natasha Hall ex­plains what she put Mideast ap­pli­cants through

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­ Natasha Hall has worked with refugees and on con­flict for more than 10 years, spe­cial­iz­ing in the Mid­dle East. She cur­rently works on hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts in Syria and lives in Istanbul.

Icon­ducted one of my last in­ter­views as an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer with the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity in Istanbul, with Mah­moud and his 8-year-old son from Aleppo, Syria. The boy had lost his legs in the ex­plo­sion that killed Mah­moud’s wife, sis­ter and other chil­dren. It was sup­posed to be his first day at school in two years. In­stead, they were in my of­fice, re­liv­ing the worst ex­pe­ri­ences of their lives in an at­tempt to come to the United States. Mah­moud trem­bled as he spoke about re­turn­ing to his home from work one day and dig­ging his fam­ily mem­bers out of the rub­ble.

I had never been both so sad and so proud that this boy would be able to come to the United States and start school and a new life. Now I imag­ine them, four years af­ter leav­ing Syria and three years af­ter reg­is­ter­ing as refugees, be­ing told to go back. Go back where?

This is what Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­cent ex­ec­u­tive or­der has done. The or­der, if it sur­vives sev­eral on­go­ing le­gal chal­lenges, bans en­try for cit­i­zens of seven coun­tries for 90 days, sus­pends all refugee ad­mis­sions for 120 days, halves the to­tal num­ber of refugees al­lowed into the United States this year and bars refugees from Syria in­def­i­nitely. It de­mands “a uni­form screen­ing stan­dard and pro­ce­dure,” “ques­tions aimed at iden­ti­fy­ing fraud­u­lent an­swers and ma­li­cious in­tent,” “a mech­a­nism to en­sure that the ap­pli­cant is who the ap­pli­cant claims to be” and “a mech­a­nism to as­sess whether or not the ap­pli­cant has the in­tent to com­mit crim­i­nal or ter­ror­ist acts.”

Who­ever wrote this or­der is ev­i­dently not aware that these screen­ings, pro­ce­dures and ques­tions al­ready ex­ist.

Dur­ing nearly four years as an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer, I con­ducted in-per­son in­ter­views with hun­dreds of refugees of 20 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties in 10 coun­tries. I saw count­less refugees break down cry­ing in my in­ter­view room be­cause of the length and sever­ity of the vet­ting process. From that ex­pe­ri­ence and nu­mer­ous se­cu­rity brief­ings, it’s clear that the authors of Trump’s or­der are un­fa­mil­iar with the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, U.S. laws, in­ter­na­tional law and the se­cu­rity threats fac­ing our na­tion. I can’t speak for all refugee and asy­lum of­fi­cers, but I can say that those who have been work­ing in im­mi­gra­tion for years from op­po­site ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum are ap­palled by these new poli­cies.

Sev­eral years ago, Berivan left her home in the rel­a­tive safety of north­east Syria to go to the cap­i­tal, Da­m­as­cus, to help peo­ple or­ga­nize peace­fully. She ended up be­ing per­se­cuted by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and armed ex­trem­ist groups, and was trapped in an area un­der siege by the regime. She paid the price for her pur­suit of free­dom in ways too hor­ri­fy­ing to men­tion.

She fi­nally es­caped and fled with her hus­band to Turkey, where she put her English and Ara­bic flu­ency to work with hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions. When I met her last year, she men­tioned that she had ap­plied for re­set­tle­ment to the United States. Sev­eral months later, she called me af­ter her re­set­tle­ment in­ter­view, de­pressed and ag­i­tated. For some­one like Berivan, who was se­verely trau­ma­tized by the war, the prob­ing in­ter­view had been bru­tal. She was called back for an­other in­ter­view, but she couldn’t take any more and did not be­lieve that the United States would re­set­tle both her and her hus­band. So she risked her life and got on a rick­ety boat to reach Europe. They are now re­build­ing their lives in Ger­many. I sup­pose she made the right choice, but the United States lost a hero.

I was sad­dened by this story, but I was not sur­prised. The process for any cit­i­zen of a Mid­dle Eastern or ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­try to get into the United States is tor­tu­ous and has be­come more so over the past 15 years, with ad­di­tional screen­ings, in­ter­views and other back­ground checks. When I started, DHS of­fi­cers in­ter­viewed four Syr­ian or Iraqi refugee cases per day; they now in­ter­view only two per day to ac­com­mo­date the range of ques­tions and safe­guards that have been added to the process. While the av­er­age wait time for refugee re­set­tle­ment is 18 to 24 months, Iraqis and Syr­i­ans typ­i­cally wait sev­eral years.

The process starts with the United Na­tions’ refugee agency, the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It con­ducts in­ter­views and screen­ings, in­clud­ing home coun­try ref­er­ence checks and bi­o­log­i­cal screen­ings such as iris scans. Then the UNHCR de­cides if an ap­pli­cant is suit­able for re­set­tle­ment and which coun­try he or she can ap­ply to. (Out of more than 65 mil­lion refugees world­wide, about 0.1 per­cent were re­set­tled to the United States last year.) An­other in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion as­sists with re­set­tle­ment pro­cess­ing by col­lect­ing doc­u­ments and con­duct­ing more in­ter­views with the fam­i­lies, look­ing care­fully for dis­crep­an­cies.

By the time Home­land Se­cu­rity steps in to con­duct an in­ter­view, the of­fi­cer has a stack of bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion on the refugee. Iron­i­cally, Iraqis, Syr­i­ans and Ira­ni­ans, who are all now barred from en­ter­ing the United States, are far and away the most well-doc­u­mented refugees we in­ter­view. I typ­i­cally had to re­view a raft of high school de­grees, bap­tismal cer­tifi­cates, mar­riage and birth cer­tifi­cates, hon­ors and awards, pho­tos with U.S. ser­vice per­son­nel, rec­om­men­da­tions from Amer­i­can mil­i­tary mem­bers, and con­scrip­tion book­lets or cards, which ev­ery man in those coun­tries has to carry. Since the United States has been in Iraq for more than 10 years, the gov­ern­ment has a plethora of in­for­ma­tion on Iraqis — in many cases, ter­ror­ists, crim­i­nals and per­se­cu­tors are rec­og­niz­able and de­nied. In one in­stance, be­cause we had this in­for­ma­tion, I knew that a man had worked with Sad­dam Hussein’s in­tel­li­gence agency for years and po­ten­tially tor­tured peo­ple, and, be­cause of checks al­ready in place, his ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected.

The Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cer then con­ducts a de­tailed in­ter­view. Ev­ery word is recorded so it can be matched up with other doc­u­men­ta­tion and past in­ter­views. Some refugees are so fear­ful of for­get­ting some de­tail of their lives that they bring notes to the in­ter­views to re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing ex­actly. Ap­pli­cants have been rep­ri­manded or de­nied for hav­ing those notes be­cause of con­cerns that they are fix­ing their scripts. Ev­ery de­tail of their cases is pored over and ex­haus­tively an­a­lyzed. In one in­stance, while re­view­ing a case, I came across a re­port of a refugee who had handed some­one a piece of fruit at a check­point. The in­ci­dent was thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated to de­ter­mine whether the per­son had pro­vided ma­te­rial sup­port to a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Next, our gov­ern­ment per­forms its own in­ten­sive screen­ing. The refugees’ in­for­ma­tion and fin­ger­prints (also taken by Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cers) are run through the data­bases of nine law en­force­ment, in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity agen­cies and matched against crim­i­nal data­bases and bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion such as past visa ap­pli­ca­tions. Be­hind the scenes, of­fi­cers and su­per­vi­sors of vary­ing po­lit­i­cal stripes de­bate and dis­cuss each case end­lessly. At U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices head­quar­ters, of­fi­cers con­duct more re­search, rec­on­cil­ing mul­ti­ple in­ter­view notes, coun­try con­di­tions and back­ground checks. They are trained to spot “red flags” or is­sues that might make some­one in­ad­mis­si­ble. If a na­tional se­cu­rity threat emerges, cer­tain na­tion­al­i­ties are placed un­der tighter scru­tiny.

If you’re bored by now just read­ing about the process, imag­ine refugees wait­ing years in a camp, freez­ing in tents and un­able to put their chil­dren in school. Some con­tinue to re­ceive threats — and some ap­pli­cants are killed while wait­ing. That fate could await those whose visas were re­voked af­ter Trump’s or­der and those still nav­i­gat­ing the ap­proval process.

Sup­port­ers of Trump’s or­der ar­gue that this ban is tem­po­rary, but they do not un­der­stand the con­se­quences of this stop­page for refugees. Be­fore the war in Syria be­gan, I met Laith, an Iraqi refugee, who had fled to Syria af­ter mem­bers of a mili­tia group at­tacked him and his fam­ily. But he still was not safe. Some­one claim­ing to be with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment threat­ened him. He was forced to move from house to house for months to es­cape death un­til the United States re­set­tled him. If the Trump ban had been in place, even tem­po­rar­ily, Laith might not have sur­vived much longer.

Aside from the im­mi­nent dan­ger many ap­pli­cants face, the stop on refugee re­set­tle­ment presents an­other is­sue: These se­cu­rity checks ex­pire, which means that, if de­layed, ap­pli­cants will have to be­gin the process again. That will, in turn, slow the process for new ap­pli­cants, cre­at­ing a huge back­log. About 60 per­cent of the 11,000 Syr­i­ans re­set­tled last year in the States were chil­dren. The forth­com­ing de­lays could con­sume en­tire child­hoods. Those who had al­ready been ap­proved prob­a­bly sold all their be­long­ings in prepa­ra­tion to move to the United States.

Even be­fore this ex­treme vet­ting process was es­tab­lished, refugee re­set­tle­ment did not rep­re­sent a pro­found threat to Amer­i­cans’ safety. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­cently re­leased by the Cato In­sti­tute, out of mil­lions of refugees re­set­tled to the United States over sev­eral decades, just 20 have com­mit­ted or at­tempted at­tacks. They killed three peo­ple, all in the 1970s, be­fore the cre­ation of the mod­ern screen­ing sys­tem. The an­nual chance of be­ing killed in a ter­ror­ist at­tack com­mit­ted by a refugee is 1 in 3.6 bil­lion.

So not only does the ex­ec­u­tive or­der pro­vide no log­i­cal ben­e­fit to na­tional se­cu­rity, but such poli­cies, if they sur­vive in the courts, feed into the ex­trem­ist nar­ra­tive that Amer­ica hates all Mus­lims — thereby hurt­ing na­tional se­cu­rity, as Michael Hay­den, for­mer CIA di­rec­tor dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have ar­gued.

All this in­for­ma­tion is avail­able to Trump. The only ex­pla­na­tion for his or­der is that the pres­i­dent is us­ing refugees to ap­peal to his base at the ex­pense of na­tional se­cu­rity.


A Syr­ian girl makes her way through a refugee camp in Le­banon last month. Refugees from Syria and Iraq cur­rently face a years-long vet­ting process be­fore they can be ad­mit­ted to the United States. About 60 per­cent of the 11,000 Syr­i­ans re­set­tled last year in the States were chil­dren.

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