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U.S. Refugee Security Screening in the Wake of Paris Terrorist Attacks

Since the attacks in Paris, I have heard from many constituents across eastern Connecticut who have concerns about the process by which refugees are screened for threats before arriving in the United States. I firmly believe that the process of admitting any refugee, including those from Syria, be as secure and rigorous as possible.  As I work in Congress to ensure that our government is doing all it can to protect our nation, I have prepared this page to provide information and resources for those looking to learn more about this important issue.

Key Points:

  • All refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, including the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defense.
  • Rigorous, thorough, and deliberate screening procedures include several measures, before any refugee is allowed into the United States:
    • Biometric (fingerprint) and biographic checks,
    • Interviews by specially trained DHS 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; and
    • Enhanced classified screening measures for Syrian refugees.
  • In addition, the U.S. Government prioritizes admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, particularly female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and individuals with severe medical conditions.
  • The process refugees are subject to is extraordinarily thorough and it generally takes more than a year, during which time they are subject to a rigorous security review process. 

U.S. Screening Policy

Currently, all refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, including the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defense. All refugees, including Syrians, are admitted only after successful completion of this stringent security screening regime.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees first registers refugees, interviews them, takes biometric data and background information. Only those who pass the U.N. assessment are referred to the United States for resettlement.

The U.S. government then conducts its own extremely rigorous screening process, including health checks, repeated biometric checks, several layers of biographical and background screening, and in-person interviews by specially-trained officers.

Multiple agencies are involved, including the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence agencies. DHS has added an additional country-specific layer of review for Syrian refugee applications, which includes extra screening for national security risks.  

Security checks are an integral part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for applicants of all nationalities, and coordinating these checks is a shared responsibility between the State Department and DHS.

All available biographic and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee applicant’s identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview.  These checks are completed by the State Department, DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the intelligence community.

A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.

Summary of security screening steps:

  • Department of Homeland Security Interviews:  Refugees are interviewed by DHS-USCIS officers to determine whether or not they can be approved for resettlement to the United States. These interviews are conducted while refugees are still abroad.
  • Consular Lookout and Watch List check: Biographic checks are conducted against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)—which includes watch list information. 
  • Security Advisory Opinions from Intelligence and Other Agencies: DHS seeks Security Advisory Opinions (SAOs) from law enforcement and intelligence communities for cases that meet certain criteria.
  • National Counterterrorism Center Checks with Intelligence Agency Support: Interagency checks, known as “IAC’s,” are conducted with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) for all refugee applicants within a designated age range, regardless of nationality. In addition, expanded intelligence community support was added to the IAC process in July 2010, and recurrent vetting was added in 2015 so that any intervening derogatory information that is identified after the initial check has cleared but before the applicant has traveled to the United States will be provided to DHS. 
  • DHS and FBI Biometric Checks: Fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Next Generation Identification system, and are screened and enrolled in DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). Through IDENT, the applicant’s fingerprints are screened not only against watch list information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the United States and overseas—including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy.
  • Department of Defense Biometric Screening: Biometric screening is also conducted through the Department of Defense (DOD) Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS). ABIS contains a variety of records, including fingerprint records captured in Iraq. ABIS screening has been expanded to refugee applicants of all nationalities who fall within the prescribed age ranges.
  • Enhanced Review for Syrian Cases: In addition to the many biometric and biographic checks conducted, DHS-USCIS has instituted additional review of Syrian refugee applications. Before being scheduled for interview by a DHS-USCIS officer (while the refugee is still abroad), Syrian cases are reviewed at DHS-USCIS headquarters. All cases that meet certain criteria are referred to the DHS-USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) for additional review and research. FDNS conducts open-source and classified research on referred cases and synthesizes an assessment for use by the interviewing officer. This information provides case-specific context relating to country conditions and regional activity, and is used by the interviewing officer to inform lines of inquiry related to the applicant’s eligibility and credibility. DHS-USCIS reports that FDNS engages with law enforcement and intelligence community members for assistance with identity verification and acquisition of additional information.
  • Additional Screening Checks on Entry:  When they travel to the United States, refugees are subject to screening conducted by DHS-U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center-Passenger and the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight program prior to their admission to the United States, as is the case with all individuals traveling to the United States regardless of immigration program.

Additional resources:

Click here for a more detailed description of the process (USCIS)

Click here for testimony from the Department of Homeland Security on how the refugee process works

Click here to view a fact sheet on the 13 step refugee security screening process