Fact Sheet - Refugee Screening

Office of Communications

Fact Sheet Dec. 3, 2015 Refugee Security Screening

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is deeply committed to safeguarding the American public from threats to public safety and national security, just as we are committed to providing refuge to some of 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.

This fact sheet provides information about the security screening and background checks required by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The USRAP is an interagency effort involving a number of governmental and non-governmental partners both overseas and in the United States. Applicants for refugee resettlement are subject to the highest degree of security screening and background checks for any category of traveler to the United States.

All refugee applicants receive a standard suite of biographic and biometric security
checks. Through close coordination with the federal law enforcement and intelligence communities, these checks are continually reviewed to identify potential enhancements and to develop approaches for specific populations that may pose particular threats. All case members included on a refugee application must clear security checks for that application to be approved.

Processing priorities are established annually that determine which of the world’s refugees are “of special humanitarian concern to the United States,” i.e., eligible to be considered for possible resettlement in the United States. Fitting into a processing priority gives a refugee applicant the opportunity for an interview with a USCIS officer but does not guarantee approval. The priorities currently in use are:

  • Priority 1: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, U.S. Embassy, or specially-trained non-governmental organization (NGO) identified cases, including persons facing compelling security concerns, women-at-risk, victims of torture or violence and others in need of resettlement

  • Priority 2: Groups of special concern identified by the U.S. refugee program (e.g., Bhutanese in Nepal)

  • Priority 3: Family reunification cases (i.e., spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons lawfully admitted to the U.S. as refugees or asylees or persons who are legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens who previously had refugee or asylum status)

    USCIS’ adjudication of Form I-590, Registration for Classification as a Refugee, is only one part of the broader USRAP:

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identifies and refers certain cases to the USRAP for resettlement and provides important information about the worldwide refugee situation. Department of State (State) has overall coordination and management responsibility for the USRAP and has the lead in proposing admissions ceilings and processing priorities.

  • Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs), under cooperative agreements with State, carry out administrative and processing functions, such as file preparation and storage, data collection, and out-processing activities.

  • USCIS is responsible for conducting individual interviews with applicants to determine their eligibility for refugee status, including whether they meet the refugee definition and are otherwise admissible to the United States under U.S. law.

    General Refugee Process

USRAP Screening

USRAP screening includes both biometric and biographic checks, which occur at multiple stages throughout the process, including immediately before a refugee’s departure to the United States as well as upon arrival in the United States.

The screening of refugee applicants involves numerous biographic checks that are initiated by the RSCs and reviewed/resolved by USCIS. These include:

  • Department of State Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)1
    CLASS name checks are initiated by State for all refugee applicants at the time of pre- screening by State’s contractor — the RSC. Name checks are conducted on the applicant’s primary names as well as any variations used by the applicant. Responses are received prior to interview and possible matches to applicants are reviewed and adjudicated by USCIS Headquarters. Evidence of the response is forwarded for inclusion in the case file. If there is a new name or variation developed or identified at the interview, USCIS requests another CLASS name check on the new name, and the case is placed on hold until that response is received.

  • Security Advisory Opinion (SAO)2
    The SAO is a State-initiated biographic check conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence community partners. SAO name checks are initiated at the time of pre-screening by the RSC for the groups and nationalities designated by the U.S. government as requiring this higher level check. SAOs are processed, and a response must be received prior to finalizing the decision. If there is a new name or variation developed at the interview, USCIS requests that another SAO be conducted on the new name, and the case is placed on hold until that response is received.

  • Interagency Check (IAC)
    The IAC screens biographic data, including names, dates of birth and other data points of all refugee applicants within designated age ranges. This information is captured at the time of pre-screening and is provided to intelligence community partners. This screening procedure was initiated in 2008 and has expanded over time to include a broader range of applicants and records. These checks occur throughout the process.

    At the time of USCIS interview, USCIS staff collects fingerprints and initiates biometric checks. The biometric checks initiated by USCIS for refugee applicants include:

• FBI Fingerprint Check through Next Generation Identification (NGI)

1 CLASS is a State name-check database that posts use to access critical information for adjudicating immigration applications.. The system contains records provided by numerous agencies and includes information on persons with visa refusals, immigration violations, criminal histories, and terrorism concerns, as well as intelligence information and child support enforcement data. In addition to containing information from State sources, sources for information in CLASS includes NCTC/TSC (terrorist watch lists), TECS, Interpol, DEA, HHS and FBI (extracts of the NCIC Wanted Person, Immigration Violator, Foreign Fugitive Files, VGTOF, and the Interstate Identification Index).

2 The Security Advisory Opinion process was implemented after September 11, 2001, to provide a mechanism for additional scrutiny to certain higher-risk categories of individuals seeking to enter the United States through a variety of means, including refugee applicants.

Recurring biometric record checks pertaining to criminal history and previous immigration data.

  • DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT - f/n/a US-VISIT)
    A biometric record check related to travel and immigration history for non-U.S. citizens as well as immigration violations, and law enforcement and national security concerns. Enrollment in IDENT also allows CBP to confirm identity at the port of entry.

  • DOD Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency (DFBA)’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS)i
    A biometric record check of DOD holdings collected in areas of conflict (predominantly Iraq and Afghanistan). DOD screening began in 2007 for Iraqi applicants and was incrementally expanded to all nationalities by 2013. CBP’s National Targeting Center- Passenger (NTC-P) conducts biographic vetting of all ABIS biometric matches (both derogatory and benign) against various classified and unclassified U.S. government databases.

    USCIS Interview

    The USCIS refugee interview itself, though not a traditional system check, is also a vital part of the refugee screening process. Highly trained USCIS officers conduct extensive interviews with each refugee applicant to elicit information about the applicant's claim for refugee status and admissibility. During the interview, the officer:

    • Confirms the basic biographical data of the applicant;
    • Verifies that the applicant was properly given access to the USRAP;
    • Determines whether the applicant has suffered past persecution or has a well-founded

    fear of future persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a

    particular social group, or political opinion in his or her home country; and
    • Determines whether the applicant is admissible to the United States and whether he or

    she has been firmly resettled in another country.

    The officer develops lines of questioning to elicit information regarding any involvement in terrorist activity, criminal activity or the persecution/torture of others, and conducts a credibility assessment on each applicant. USCIS officers receive training on country-specific issues for populations they interview, including briefings from outside experts from the intelligence, policy and academic communities.

    Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process (CARRP)

    During the routine process of adjudicating any USCIS benefit, if any national security concerns are raised, either based on security and background checks or personal interviews or testimony, USCIS conducts an additional review through the internal CARRP process.

Syria Enhanced Review

USCIS’ Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate and Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) have collaborated to provide for enhanced review of certain Syrian cases. This review involves FDNS providing intelligence-driven support to refugee adjudicators, including threat identification, and suggesting topics for questioning. FDNS also monitors terrorist watch lists and disseminates intelligence information reports on any applicants who are determined to present a national security threat.

CBP Screening

An applicant with a USCIS-approved Form I-590, Registration for Classification as a Refugee, must be found admissible to the United States by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before receiving refugee status. CBP receives a manifest of all individuals who have approved Forms I- 590 and have been booked for travel to the United States by air. CBP receives this manifest eight days before the scheduled travel. CBP performs initial vetting of the individuals before they arrive at a U.S. airport and conducts additional background checks of these individuals upon arrival at a U.S. airport.