With the news that one of the Paris attackers may have entered Europe posing as a refugee from Syria, more than half of American governors are now objecting to Syrian refugees being resettled in their states. On Tuesday, White House officials hosted a call with 34 governors to better explain current security screening measures. And this week, some members of Congress have called on the Obama administration to stop or at least pause the resettlement program until refugees can be properly vetted. Here are four things you should know about the current vetting process and concerns over security:
1. Refugees are screened by several different agencies.
Their first point of a refugee's contact is with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. The UNHCR refers people to countries based on whether they have any family members there and where resettlement makes the most sense, say U.S. officials. If that's the U.S., then refugees are vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. Fingerprints are taken, biographical information is collected. They are then each individually interviewed by U.S. officials trained to verify that they're bona fide refugees.
Refugees from Syria are then subject to additional screening that looks at where they came from and what caused them to flee their home, stories that are checked out. All of this occurs before a refugee is allowed to set foot in the country.
2. It's a lengthy process.
As you might imagine, all of the vetting, from interviews to fingerprinting, takes a while. On average, officials say it's 18 to 24 months before a refugee is approved for admission to the U.S.
The U.S. has admitted some 1,800 Syrian refugees in the past two years, and President Obama wants to allow 10,000 more. The administration says half of those who have been admitted are children and about a quarter of them are adults over 60. Officials say 2 percent are single males of combat age.
3. Physical resettlement.
There are nine different nonprofit groups, six of them faith-based, that help refugees settle in the U.S. Volunteers with the groups help refugees find homes, furniture, school supplies and jobs.
4. Objections of governors and members of Congress.
Some officials, including FBI Director James Comey, worry there are what Comey has called "gaps" in the vetting process. Experts say U.S. intelligence in Syria isn't very good, because the U.S. lacks much of a presence on the ground. So there's no way to compile a thorough watch list of possible terrorists from Syria against which refugees can be checked. Administration officials are briefing governors and members of Congress about the process, but lawmakers may try to pass legislation calling on the administration to suspend its refugee resettlement efforts.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One of the Paris attackers may have entered Europe posing as a refugee from Syria. That's prompted many governors here in the U.S. to object to Syrian refugees settling in their states. The Obama administration says refugees are vetted extensively before they enter the U.S., but security experts warn of gaps in that process. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The administration says Syrians, like all refugees who hope to come to the U.S., are subject to the highest level of security checks of anyone entering the country. First, they're screened by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. Those who are selected for possible entry to the U.S. are then subject to vetting by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland security. White House spokesman Josh Earnest says it's a rigorous process.
JOSH EARNEST: They go through databases that are maintained by DHS, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. There is biographical and biometric information that's collected about these individuals. They have to submit to in-person interviews to discuss their case.
NAYLOR: Administration officials say refugees from Syria undergo additional screening that looks at where the refugee came from and what caused them to flee their home - stories that are checked out. All of this occurs before a refugee is allowed to set foot in the country. David Leopold is an immigration attorney who has represented refugees.
DAVID LEOPOLD: I can't imagine a more rigorous, detailed, extensive, careful process than the one that the United States government now applies to any refugee seeking to come to the United States for safe haven.
NAYLOR: The U.S. has admitted some 1,800 Syrian refugees in the past two years. President Obama wants to allow 10,000 more. The administration says half of those who have been admitted are children. About a quarter of them are adults over 60. Officials say 2 percent are single males of combat age. The vetting process takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months.
Once the refugees are in the country, they're resettled by 1 of 9 nonprofit groups which include faith-based organizations. Most rely on volunteers to find refugees homes, furniture, school equipment and jobs. Yet, as thorough was the vetting process may sound, not everyone is convinced it's completely adequate - FBI Director James Comey, for one.
JAMES COMEY: My concern there is that there are certain gaps they don't want to talk about publicly in that - in the data available to us.
NAYLOR: One particular concern is while it's all well and good to check refugees against names on a terrorist watch list, U.S. intelligence in Syria has its own inadequacies that makes compiling a thorough list of possible terrorists difficult. Seth Jones is with the RAND Corporation.
SETH JONES: U.S. intelligence collection in Syria is simply not as good. The U.S. doesn't have the capabilities, the footprint on the ground in Syria that it's had in other places.
NAYLOR: So, says Jones...
JONES: Vetting them isn't going to get - isn't going to come up with a match because their names haven't gotten on a database.
NAYLOR: Administration officials are briefing governors and members of Congress to reassure them about the vetting process. A senior administration official who asked not to be identified worries about losing the program's traditional bipartisan support which the official called a rare thing in the current political climate. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.