The Trump administration argues that these new security measures, and those that came before them, will make America safer. But, based on my experience as the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the vetting procedures that are already in place are strong enough to identify any problematic history of an applicant.
During the fiscal years coinciding with my tenure as head of USCIS, the Obama administration resettled nearly 280,000 refugees. We had a multi-layered array of tools and resources at our disposal to determine whether applicants qualified as refugees, as defined by the United Nations refugee agency, and to ensure that their case did not raise national security concerns. To do so, the agency’s procedures included repeated inquiries of multiple intelligence databases, collecting extensive biographic and biometric information, and interviews by specially trained officers briefed on relevant regional conditions.
The Trump administration, however, has painted a picture of refugees who, if admitted, will threaten American life—yet time and time again, I learned the stories of refugees who contributed to it: The young man from war-torn Syria who came to the United States, where, despite missing years of schooling, slowly built a successful catering business; the Muslim Marines who came to the U.S. as refugees and now serve or have served with distinction; and a 10-year-old Iraqi boy whose command of the English language—while still in Turkey awaiting admission to the U.S.—was already as good as that of the classmates he would soon join in Michigan.
These stories are not uncommon. Those who have spent time in the State Department’s refugee resettlement centers around the world would recognize that. During my visits, I met people not that different from us, who are ready, willing and able to start their lives over in the United States given the chance. I saw parents sitting in English classes while awaiting refugee interviews, and entire families attending cultural orientation classes to learn American customs, business practices, and U.S. geography and history.
Resettlement organizations are also critical in the process. They, in partnership with local social service organizations across the country, empower refugees to become self-sufficient within a year of their arrival. By helping individuals build stable and secure lives in the United States, these organizations, such as HIAS and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, make certain that newly-arrived refugees can fully participate in their communities—economically, socially, and politically.
Welcoming those facing persecution is woven into the fabric of who we are as Americans. The fears now expressed about refugees are not new, but in the past, a brave and compassionate America dismissed those fears. In a speech before the House Judiciary Committee on August 10, 1964, no less mainstream a figure than the president general of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned of “a collapse of morale and spiritual values if non-assimilable aliens of dissimilar ethnic background … overturn the balance of our national character.”