Special State Dept. Briefing on Refugee Screening Process

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 19, 2015.

MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.

Got a special guest with me here today to kick off the briefing – Mr. Simon Henshaw, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, is going to walk you through for a few minutes some more details about the screening process for refugees. We’ve talked about this over the last few days, about how extensive and thorough it is, and I asked Mr. Henshaw to come give you a little primer on that. He’ll also be able to stick around for a couple of questions and then we’ll get on with our normal daily briefing.

So with that, I turn over the podium to Simon Henshaw. Sir.

MR HENSHAW: Good afternoon. The United States remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people from terrorists, just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe these goals are mutually exclusive or that either has to be pursued at the expense of the other.

The U.S. welcomed 1,682 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2015, and the President has directed his team to make preparations to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2016. Measured against more than four million Syrian refugees currently hosted in the Middle East, this is a modest but an important contribution to the global effort to address the Syrian refugee crisis.

We understand that concerns have been raised regarding the efficiency of refugee screening, and we want to assure everyone that the safety and security of American people is our top priority. Nothing is more important to us than the security of the American people.

All refugees go through the most intensive security screening of any travelers to the United States. It includes multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.

Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening. We continue to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified. We prioritize admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, including female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and individuals with severe medical conditions. We have, for years, safely admitted refugees from all over the world, including Syrian refugees, and we have a great deal of experience screening and admitting large numbers of refugees from chaotic environments, including where intelligence holdings are limited.

DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, has full discretion to deny admission before a refugee comes to the U.S. When in doubt, DHS denies applications on national security grounds and the individual never travels to the United States. Their decisions are guided by the key principle directed by the President and affirmed throughout the U.S. Government that the safety and security of the American people must come first. The U.S. Government has the sole authority to screen and decide which refugees are admitted to the United States. Security checks are a shared responsibility between the State Department and DHS.

All available biographical and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee’s identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview. DHS conducts extensive in-person interviews of all refugee applicants. Biographic checks against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, known as CLASS, which includes watch list information, are initiated at the time of a prescreening carried out by State Department contractors.

In addition, the State Department requests security advisory opinions from the law enforcement and intelligence communities for those cases meeting certain criteria. Biometric checks are coordinated by USCIS using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs at the time of the interview. These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the FBI, the integrated automatic – automated fingerprint identification system, and screened and enrolled in DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System, which is known as IDENT.

Through IDENT, applicant 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. The classified details of the refugee screening – security screen process are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees. Thank you.

QUESTION: So as you probably know, the House has just passed – by what would look like veto-proof majority – a new set of restrictions on refugees. Can you just lay out what you see as problematic in this bill and what the effect would be?

MR HENSHAW: I don’t think we can comment on the bill until we’ve seen the final version. I would say that we understand that members of Congress have concerns about this process and that we’ve spent the last few days in numerous briefings on the Hill explaining the process to them in detail in both classified and unclassified settings.

QUESTION: What’s the problem, then, with adding new restrictions? I mean, I can – I understand you think what you have is good, but what’s the problem in adding new layers of restrictions to the program?

MR HENSHAW: I haven’t seen the bill so I can’t comment.

MR KIRBY: Nicole.

QUESTION: You mentioned that State, or at least the government, has a great deal of experience screening people coming from chaotic environments. I was wondering if you could give us some concrete examples.

MR HENSHAW: Somalia, Sudan, Iraq —


MR HENSHAW: — Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Okay. You also – adding 10,000 people, given the checks that you’ve – that you would put them through, seems to be an awful lot of work. I was just wondering if there are any plans to increase manpower or staffing to deal with these 10,000 applicants.

MR HENSHAW: Yes. The last three years we’ve done 70,000 refugees a year, and this year we’re going up to 85,000, and we have increased our workforces and our budgets and our efforts to match the increased number of refugees.


QUESTION: Just a technical question: You said that these mobile units and all, they are doing the checks and biometrics and all. Where is it done for the Syrians? Not in Syria, I suppose.

MR HENSHAW: No, we are not operating in Syria.

QUESTION: So it’s where?

MR HENSHAW: It’s a good question. The vast majority are in Turkey and in Jordan. We hope later this year to be able to operate on a small scale in Beirut. DHS sends out mobile teams for periods of weeks to each location. The State Department already has contractors operating centers in all of these locations, and generally the interviews are done at these contractor locations.

QUESTION: When you say that the FBI checks on the – so they have to be on the FBI database, otherwise how can FBI check against the database?

MR HENSHAW: They’re – all these databases, the names, the biographical and biometric data is checked to see if there are any records of this person in that database.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up on that.

MR KIRBY: This will be the last one.

QUESTION: Given the debate going on now and new concerns, do you still believe that you can move forward with those 10,000 refugees next year?

MR HENSHAW: It is the President’s intention to bring in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country this year.

QUESTION: And you would – would you then add additional security for those 10,000 coming in?

MR HENSHAW: We are constantly looking at the system for improvements. We’ll continue to do so. We’re looking at new ways that are – some of which are classified — to be able to process the Syrian databases.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, Simon. Thank you, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.