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A Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father's arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus in October 2015, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Associated Press) A Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father's arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus in October 2015, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Associated Press)

A Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father's arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus in October 2015, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Associated Press)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher January 6, 2017

Federal government doesn't give information on Syrian refugees who come to Wisconsin?

In year-end media interviews, Gov. Scott Walker amplified his safety concerns about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s review of refugees who come to Wisconsin, particularly from Syria.

"We want to make sure Homeland Security's got an aggressive and appropriate vetting process, to have an idea who's coming in, where they're coming from, how long they're anticipating being here," Walker said on the Dec. 23, 2016 edition of "Here and Now," a Wisconsin Public Television show.

"Right now, we don't get any of that information. And as you can imagine, it's frustrating for us, it's frustrating for law enforcement. And it's not to say that refugees aren't legit; we've had refugees before, we'll have refugees going forward from any number of countries. We just want to make sure we can guarantee our safety."

Is Walker right that authorities in Wisconsin don’t know who the refugees are who settle in the state, where they’re from and how long they’re likely to stay?

Federal vetting process

After terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans said they opposed the settling of Syrian refugees in the state. They have not laid out a plan for ensuring that doesn't happen. But in one of his 2016 year-end interviews, Walker called on President-elect Donald Trump to immediately clear federal barriers to keeping Syrian refugees out of the state.

Refugees, to be clear, are different from other types of immigrants. A refugee has been legally defined as having "a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; is outside his or her country of origin"; and is unable to return there "for fear of persecution."

Trump and other Republicans have denounced the sufficiency of the federal vetting of refugees. And there’s no question there are challenges to screening refugees from conflict zones such as Syria, where intelligence and national security officials have said there is minimal data on individuals.

Nevertheless, vetting is a multi-step, multi-agency process, in place since 1980, that includes additional screening of refugees coming from Syria. As PolitiFact National has reported, here is the process generally:

1. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determines who is eligible as a refugee.

2. Refugees referred to the United States are vetted through a process that involves multiple federal intelligence and security agencies. Their names, biographical information and fingerprints are run through databases coordinated by the FBI, and the departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense.

(For Syrian refugees, there’s one additional step (more details here). Their filings with the UN and initial documents submitted to the U.S. program are reviewed. Information about where they came from, what caused them to flee and what their experiences were like are cross-referenced with classified and unclassified information.)

3. While the checks are being conducted, Homeland Security officers interview the refugees in person. Refugees who’ve been cleared by an officer, the State Department and the background checks then undergo medical screenings, a match with a sponsor agency, "cultural orientation" classes and one final security clearance.

This process (more details here) typically takes one to two years, if not longer, and happens before a refugee ever gets onto American soil.

Notifications in states

With regard to Walker’s statement, two nonprofits -- Amnesty International USA and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants -- told us that state governments generally are not given lists of the names of refugees who are resettled in their states.

But that’s something of a red herring. Refugees approved for settling in the United States, like other legal immigrants, have a right to live where they want and to move about. The experts pointed out that the state government or local law enforcement agencies generally are not notified when any person who is legally in the United States moves into their state.

That’s not to say no one in Wisconsin knows when refugees first arrive. In fact, preparations are made in advance, in an effort to choose a community where a refugee is likely to assimilate. According to the two nonprofit agencies and David Martin, an emeritus professor of international law at the University of Virginia who’s previously held posts at Homeland Security and the State Department, here is an overview of the process:

1. Non-profit agencies that have offices throughout the United States -- including Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services -- have contracts with the U.S. State Department to do refugee resettlement. Those agencies are given the names, home countries and other information about refugees approved by the Department of Homeland Security, such as whether they have family in the United States.

2. At the national level, the agencies meet weekly to decide, in consultation with the State Department, where the approved refugees should be resettled, based on their individual circumstances and local resources. In turn, those agencies’ local offices are notified and resettlement plans are put in place specifically for the refugees, covering housing, job assistance, language classes and other needs. Once the final vetting is completed, the local agencies meet the refugees when they arrive and begin the process of helping them settle.

In addition, the private agencies coordinate with state refugee services workers who are federally funded employees of the state Department of Children and Families.

So, it’s not as though the state is in the dark about refugee resettlement.

Featured Fact-check

Two final points:

1. Some information about refugee resettlements is readily available on the website of the federal Refugee Processing Center. We did a search that showed that in 2016, 1,877 refugees were placed in Wisconsin, with nearly half coming from Burma (also known as Myanmar) in Southeast Asia. Here are the five largest groups:



Refugees settled in Wisconsin in 2016



Democratic Republic of the Congo








2. Given that refugees are coming to the United States because life is not safe for them in their homeland, and it’s been a years-long process to get admitted to the U.S., the stays are not viewed as temporary.

"The strong presumption is that it’s permanent," said Martin. Refugees who stay for a year without committing a crime can then get a "green card" and become a permanent U.S. resident, he said.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said Walker’s complaint is that the governor’s office doesn’t receive any information about refugees placed in Wisconsin until after decisions have been made by the federal government. "The state has no authority regarding who is coming to our state, when they are coming and where they are coming from," Evenson said.

But, to reiterate, the vetting of refugees is a federal matter. And once people have legally arrived in the United States -- immigrants, refugees, etc. -- they are generally free to live where they want without notification to, or approval from, the state.

Our rating

Walker said: "We don't get any of that information" from the federal government on who refugees are, where they come from and how long they are likely to stay.

Walker has a point in that, after vetting the refugees and approving their entrance to the United States, the federal government does not provide lists of the names of those individuals to states. But that’s something of a red herring -- states don’t get lists of other people who are legally in the United States and are generally free to move about and reside wherever they want.

Data on the numbers of refugees, where they came and where they settle is available -- and Wisconsin state government has refugee services workers who coordinate with private agencies in the settlement of refugees.

As for Walker’s point about length of stay, it doesn’t really fit, given that refugees fleeing their homeland generally are settling in the United States permanently.

For a statement that has an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.

Our Sources

Wisconsin Public Television, "Here and Now" show interview (5:10) of Gov. Scott Walker, Dec. 23, 2016

Email, Gov. Scott Walker press secretary Tom Evenson, Jan. 5, 2017

Email, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Assistant Deputy Secretary Sara Buschman, Jan. 5, 2017

PolitiFact National, "Ben Carson: 'There is currently no ability to vet' Syrian refugees (Mostly False)," Nov. 19, 2015

PolitiFact National, "PolitiFact Sheet: 5 questions about Syrian refugees," Nov. 19, 2015

PolitiFact National, "Wrong: Donald Trump says there's 'no system to vet' refugees," June 13, 2016

Interview, RAND Corp. Homeland Security and Defense Center director Henry Willis, Jan. 3, 2017

Interview, Amnesty International USA refugee and migrant rights senior campaigner Denise C. Bell, Jan. 3, 2017

Interview, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants director of government and community relations Stacie Blake, Jan. 3, 2017

Interview, University of Virginia emeritus professor of international law David Martin, Jan. 3, 2017,  interactive reporting searches

The White House, "Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States," Nov. 20, 2015

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Federal government doesn't give information on Syrian refugees who come to Wisconsin?

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