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The U.S. Refugee Screening Process 'Works'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Anne Richard is the assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees and Migration. We called her up to explain just what goes into the decision to allow a refugee into this country. She said it begins when the U.N. recommends a refugee to the U.S. government for asylum consideration. After that, the State Department conducts a series of background interviews. And then a representative from the Department of Homeland Security enters the process.

ANNE RICHARD: They are trying to screen out anyone who's a liar, who has a criminal past and most especially, anyone who has any bad intentions towards the U.S., any potential terrorists who would try to exploit this program.

MARTIN: Do you assume that the person is a refugee? I mean, what's the going-in position?

RICHARD: Well, UNHCR will only refer to us people that they think have a good case. And of the ones they refer to us, about 80 percent are approved, and 1 in 5 is denied. If they pass this interview and if their names and biodata - their fingerprints, all their biographical information - checks out against a large number of U.S. government databases maintained by intelligence and law enforcement, then they would be potentially accepted for admission to the United States. One of the things that we were making clear in recent days to members of Congress is we don't have to take anyone. And so if the Department of Homeland Security officer has any concerns or any questions or not enough information, they do not need to approve this person. They can deny them or put them on hold.

MARTIN: As you know, some U.S. governors are now saying that they oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees in particular in their state until there's a kind of systemic review of the security process and the vetting system. Are there holes in the system that are legitimate?

RICHARD: Any government process can probably be improved upon. But we feel very strongly that this program is the toughest vetting system for any traveler to the United States. It's the most thorough and comprehensive. We have a great deal of faith in it. And we think that a lot of time in it is spent to make sure that no one who would be a threat to American citizens is allowed into the program.

MARTIN: Some in Congress are saying there are too many agencies involved in this vetting system and, in particular, the interview process, and that the FBI should take a lead on interviewing potential refugees granted asylum in this country. Is that a good idea?

RICHARD: The process, as it's set up right now, works. It's tremendously successful. There have been three million refugees brought to the United States since the 1970s. Only a handful have ended up being people who should not have been brought because they had terrorist connections. None of them carried out successful attacks. And since that happened, the program has been further tightened in the last few years of the administration. So we feel that this program works. I think people have fears about terrorism. I acknowledge that. And I think that's part of what is making people watch what's happening in Europe. But we have to design programs based on facts and to ensure that nothing bad happens to Americans. And I think we have a program that does that.

MARTIN: Anne Richard is assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees and Migration. Thanks so much for talking with us.

RICHARD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.