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Trump announces ‘deeper vetting’ process for refugees from 11 countries

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On the heels of a 120-day refugee ban that expired Tuesday, the Trump administration will begin admitting refugees on a limited basis, but will additionally scrutinize refugees from 11 countries on a case-by-case basis after they pass “deeper vetting” in a temporary review period, administration officials announced Tuesday ahead of the release of a new executive order on national security.

“This is part of the administration’s efforts to raise security standards across the board and increase heightened vetting,” Jonathan Hoffman, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said on a call with reporters on Tuesday.

The executive order, “Resuming the United States Refugee Admissions Program with Enhanced Vetting Capabilities,” seeks to implement security enhancements in increased data collection and better information between DHS and the State Department, DHS administration officials said. During a 90-day review period, the United States will admit refugees from 11 so-called “high risk countries” only after they have passed three categories of enhancements, including the application process, the interview and adjudication process, and the systems check. 

Officials said they will not identify the 11 countries targeted out of safety concerns, but the executive order appears to target additional vetting for refugees previously identified through a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) designation, an even more extensive background check used by various federal agencies, to be re-interviewed as well. A Reuters report from earlier in the day based on a leaked State Department memo noted that adult male nationals from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, as well as some from Palestine are required to submit SAOs. A senior DHS official said they wouldn’t “be able to confirm” if these are the targeted countries.

“We are not sharing with you the 11 countries and what they are because there are law enforcement sensitivities with providing that kind of information,” the senior administration official said. The official pointed out that refugee admission from these 11 countries would be based in part on whether their presence in the United States benefits national security interests and that they “in fact don’t pose a security threat.”

The new requirements extend to refugees who have already been through the pre-screening process and are on track for a more extensive interview, according to Reuters’ earlier reporting, which said refugee processing centers abroad are told not to put in requests for the SAO until new guidelines are sent.

The application process will require additional data from refugee applicants to determine the veracity of their stories and whether they have “ties to bad actors,” a senior DHS administration official said. In the interview process, certain refugees will be directed to processing locations where officers on the ground can “better identify public safety threats,” like refugees who may be tied to issues relating to drug offenses, drug trafficking, prostitution, fraud, among other offenses. The assessment is based on laws consistent with the REAL ID Act. Finally, officials will subject refugees through a systems check where “enhancement checks” are conducted through “social media and additional databases,” the DHS administration official said.

“It’s not in our interest to bring someone with views hostile to the United States,” a senior Department of State administration official said. “Our number one interest is providing security for the U.S. people.”

Last week, two courts ruled against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, so called because it restricted foreigners from mostly Muslim-majority countries. A previous version of the ban also included a 120-day temporary ban on refugees, which expired on Tuesday.

According to earlier reporting by Reuters, the new guidelines require refugees to provide “phone, email and address information going back ten years instead of five” for all the residences they lived in for more than 30 days. The memo also allows the U.S. government to collect current phone numbers and email addresses of all family members of refugees indicating that this information is currently given for “relatives with connections to the United States.”

These new requirements could prove to be very difficult to collect for refugees who didn’t have time to pack their documents before fleeing violence, imminent death, or whose lives were upended by natural disasters, as Reuters reported. Currently, refugees face at least a two-year screening process for resettlement in the United States. With the new executive order, officials said “every single refugee case is different so we don’t have a timeframe for it overall.”

Given that 44 percent of the 54,000 refugees admitted into the United States this fiscal year came from those 11 countries and Palestine, the memo’s intent could seriously jeopardize the chance for many people to come into the country next year. Next year, the Trump administration plans to receive 45,000 refugees, the lowest since the U.S. began the refugee admissions program in 1975. For perspective, in 2016, the Obama administration accepted about 85,000 refugees and increased the cap to 110,000 refugees for the 2017 fiscal year.

Many agencies have said that the old vetting process for immigrants was stringent enough, but President Donald Trump has been skeptical of the current process, claiming terrorists could infiltrate this country. Reports have shown time and again that refugees are more likely to be victimized than be the criminals themselves.

“This announcement puts thousands of families and individuals at serious risk of injury or death,” Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns at Amnesty International USA, said in a press statement. “The people who will be hurt by this were on the brink of finding safety, and now they’re instead thrown into harm’s way again. Ripping families apart and subjecting refugees to yet more scrutiny does not keep anyone safer, and in fact exposes more people to danger.

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