A Syrian passport found on the body of a dead suicide bomber in the Paris attacks has prompted some to question President Barack Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes noted on Nov. 15’s Fox News Sunday that there are "very robust vetting procedures for those refugees" and said the administration will still continue to take them. But that’s "untrue" and, in fact, "there’s virtually no vetting," according to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.
Elsewhere on the airwaves, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush suggested that the vetting process was at least enough to distinguish between Christians — whom the United States should focus on, according to Bush — and everyone else fleeing Syria.
"It takes almost a year for a refugee to be processed in the United States," Bush noted on CNN’s State of the Union.
We were curious if that’s how long the refugee vetting process takes. We found that Bush is actually understating the duration, especially for those from Syria and other countries where terrorism is a concern.
Let’s begin with an overview of the refugee admissions process.
Before a refugee even faces U.S. vetting, he or she must first clear an eligibility hurdle. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — or occasionally a U.S. embassy or another NGO — determines which refugees (about 1 percent) should be resettled through its own process, which can take four to 10 months.
As we noted in a previous fact-check, once a case is referred from the UNHCR to the United States, a refugee undergoes a security clearance check that could take several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsor agency, "cultural orientation" classes, and one final security clearance. This all happens before a refugee ever gets onto American soil.
Karen Jacobsen, the director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Program at Tufts University noted that this intensive vetting process as well as U.S law on refugees and asylum seekers "makes it difficult to quickly admit large numbers of refugees."
So how long does it take? Worldwide, about a year to 18 months, according to a State Department fact-sheet cited by the Bush campaign. A different page on the State Department website estimates an average time of 18 to 24 months.
For refugees from Syria and similar countries, however, the process can span two years, a spokesperson for the State Department told the Voice of America in September. Experts confirmed that two years is the average review duration for Syrian refugees, which means that some wait even longer.
"It can actually take almost three years. (Bush) is being optimistic," said Lavinia Limón, the president of the advocacy group, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "The process for refugees is the most extensive security screening we have for visitors. It’s easier to come in as a tourist, a student, a businessman."
Even if they weren’t from countries where terrorism was a concern, refugees would be "lucky" if the process took less than a year, Limón said. She pointed out that since the refugee program for Central American minors was established a year ago, the United States has yet to admit one child.
The length and thoroughness of the U.S. vetting system sets it apart from the "chaotic, dangerous process" for refugees fleeing into Europe by sea, said Geoffrey Mock, the Syrian country specialist for Amnesty International USA. Refugees enter European countries as asylum seekers and are granted access into the country without a thorough vetting from the UN. Scrutiny comes later.
"No vetting process can make guarantees, but the population identified by the UN and vetted by both organizations has worked successfully in alleviating crises in dozens of other countries, including Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and the Central African Republic," Mock said. "There’s no reason to believe Syria will be any different."
In other words, the process for admitting a Syrian asylum seeker into France is much simpler than the process for resettling a Syrian refugee into the United States.
"The U.S. refugee program is incredibly controlled. You can be 99.9 percent sure that guy wouldn’t have gotten here," Limón said. "I understand the kneejerk reaction but you’re painting a very broad brush stroke. Refugees, by definition, are fleeing terrorism. What happened in Paris, they’ve experienced. They’ve seen family members slaughtered and their houses burnt and they’re running for their lives."
Bush said, "It takes almost a year for a refugee to be processed in the United States."
Bush actually gave the low estimate for how long the refugee admissions process takes. The worldwide average is between a year to a year and a half. For Syrian refugees, it takes two years on average.
Bush’s overall point is correct, and his estimate is in the ballpark if even low. We rate his claim Mostly True.