The U.S. federal government said Monday it will resume refugee admissions from 11 countries previously identified as “high risk,” based on national security claims. But in so doing, the government will impose “additional” security enhancements and recommendations that “are designed to keep nefarious and fraudulent actors from exploiting the refugee program to enter the United States,” according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security press release.
The move comes three months, or 90 days, after President Donald Trump issued an executive order that resumed the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) but only accepted refugees from those 11 countries on a case-by-case basis after they went through a “deeper vetting” process.
As a result of the 90-day review, Nielsen announced Monday at a public event that the agency would roll out enhancements like: added screening for nationals from the high-risk countries and taking on a “risk-based manner” to admit refugees through the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program. A “risk-based manner” in selecting refugees would mean considering the overall refugee admissions ceiling of 45,000 people; regional and geographic allocations; and the groups of applicants considered for resettlement, the senior official said.
A senior administration official declined to publicly confirm the 11 “high-risk” countries. Reuters previously reported that individuals from countries subject to a more extensive background check include people identified through a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) designation. Those countries include: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.Secretary Nielsen said DHS would review and possibly update the refugee high-risk country list, which hasn’t changed since 2015.
“It’s critically important that we know who is entering the United States,” Nielsen said according to a DHS press release Monday. “These additional security measures will make it harder for bad actors to exploit our refugee program, and they will ensure we take a more risk-based approach to protecting the homeland. The United States must continue to fulfill its obligation to the global community to assist those facing persecution and do so in a manner that addresses the security of the American people.”
A senior Trump administration official said the additional vetting could include “even more in-depth interviews with USRAP applicants and family members from these countries among other security measures.” The official declined to say what the “additional security elements” would include.
“We didn’t specifically broadcast what those are, you know we don’t want to give the playbook to our enemies on what exactly we’re looking for to be able to identify national security threats,” the same senior administration official said. “With that said, the new measures going into place will apply to nationals of 11 countries that require security screenings, so it won’t apply to all of them.”
That senior administration official added there were other security threats aside from national security threats like transnational crimes.
The procedures will go into effect on a rolling basis before the second quarter of the 2018 fiscal year, a senior official from the USCIS agency said.
Senior administration officials strongly resisted to confirming that the refugee screening process discriminated against Muslims in particular after Victoria Macchi, a reporter with Voice of America, pointed out that the number of Muslim refugees has gone down significantly over the past few months.
“Let me start by first noting and really, really strongly here– our admissions has nothing to do with religion in any way shape or form,” a senior administration official said. “That said, the USCIS and DHS can speak to why you see dips and numbers and the lag time on this program.”
“The slowdown in many places is a result of many different factors including security checks and medical checks and the number of resources that DHS is able to commit and frankly learning new procedures and the elements of coordinating different parts of the bureaucracy so I think that partially answers the question,” a State Department official said.
When Macchi asked again whether this would reduce the number of Muslim refugees, a senior DHS official said, “No. We said very clearly that this is not based on any religion.” He then moved on to questions from other reporters.
Between January 20 (Trump’s Inauguration Day) and December 31, 2017, the Trump administration took in 29,022 refugees, the lowest number since 2002.