“Extreme Vetting”: What is it and how is it different than current U.S. immigration processes

Posted by Rawan Elbaba on November 22, 2016 in Blog

President-elect Donald Trump’s 10-point immigration plan has several problematic points seemingly rooted in xenophobia and a disregard for Constitutional values. Since recently reiterating immigration will be part of his early agenda it’s important to review what we know. One of the most concerning of his policies proposed on the campaign trail included a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States which later morphed into “extreme vetting” of foreign nationals from “terror-prone regions.”

Very few specifics are available regarding Trump’s proposed vetting reforms and how they would essentially alter the current system. The so-called “Muslim ban” was first raised by Trump as part of his plan to counter ISIS. He called on authorities to "temporarily suspend immigration from some of the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism." In one speech, he also called for extreme vetting of immigrants and refugees from countries with anti-gay, anti-Semitic, misogynistic or unconstitutional views. After extensive backlash, talk of the “Muslim ban” was overtaken by “extreme vetting,” which eventually made its way to his first 100 days plan as President. However, nowhere has he definitively rescinded the “Muslim ban;” in fact, the press release first calling for a “shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” still lives on his campaign website.

Despite claims that the United States cannot “properly vet” refugees and potential immigrants, there is indeed an extensive vetting process already in place for both refugees and immigrants to the U.S. In discussing banning Muslims or other immigrants from “terror-prone” countries, politicians often conflate the U.S. intake of refugees with immigration. They are indeed two separate processes that have differing yet extensive requirements. 


Those hoping to relocate to the United States face a lengthy and thorough visa process that only begins once an applicant is sponsored by a US relative, an existing permanent resident or a potential employer. The process to approval begins when an application is confirmed by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Paperwork is then passed onto the National Visa Center, which begins processing the applications which may take up to three weeks. Documentation is then handed off to the US embassy or consulate in the country the visa candidate applied in. In the meantime, applicants are required to pay visa processing fees and collect required documents like bank statements and civil records including birth, marriage and criminal history. In six weeks’ time, the National Visa Center will have completed its record check and issue an invitation for an interview with the applicant. Interviews are typically scheduled within 60 days of complete document submission. Applicants are also required to get a full medical examination in preparation to enter the United States. After the interview, additional security screenings are conducted through several government agencies under the State Department.

It is important to note that this process can be considerably longer for applicants from countries that have a history of conflict, have a specific name (similar to those found on various watch lists) or who work in certain fields (like a career in “sensitive technologies”). Consular officers may determine that a specific applicant is ineligible to obtain a visa based on a “security-related concern.” In that case, a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) is requested, sending the application to the State Department. The State Department will then request additional security clearance for the applicant from agencies including the FBI, CIA, DEA, Department of Commerce, and Interpol. There are several types of SAO’s, most commonly Condor SAOs which are issues based on the applicants’ place of birth, nationality, or citizenship. Some countries like Iran, Sudan and Syria which are currently designated as State Sponsors of Terrorism by the State Department have limited access to visas to the United States. Nationals from a specified list of countries, most of which are in the Middle East, are also subject to SAOs to achieve maximum security clearance. Another type of additional processing is Donkey SAO which investigates applications based on a name hits (i.e. if your name happens to match that of a suspected terrorist).

Because of this, Trump’s “extreme vetting” plan seems redundant.

Trump linked his plan to President Obama’s call to accept more refugees including 10,000 Syrian refugees. By doing so he exploited  fears calling Syrian refugees fleeing war and terrorism a “great Trojan horse.” However, Anne Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, has noted that Syrians “are the most highly scrutinized and vetted group of travelers to the United States.”   


Trump’s proposed immigration plan has three major keys. First, his administration would “temporarily suspend immigration from the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism.” Second, Trump would ask the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to “identify a list of regions where adequate screening cannot take place.” Trump argues that because of the large number of immigrants coming to the United States each year, it’s impossible to sufficiently screen each one of them. This lack of confidence in the vetting system is often traced to comments by FBI Director Comey which have been taken out of context. Over the course of several congressional hearings Comey at one point noted that there were some gaps in the screening process in relation to Syria but added that the process has improved and expressed confidence in it. Finally, Trump also called for a more rigorous and “extreme” immigration test to avoid admitting visas to people who don’t “share our values and respect our people.” However, what this means has not been outlined in any detail by Trump or his team.


The multipart process, which could take up to two years to complete, involves the UNHCR and three primary U.S. government agencies including the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. The UNHCR begins the vetting process with case identification based on resettlement applications. After the preliminary assessment of the need for resettlement, a supervising officer conducts a review of the application. After this assessment, preconditions are either met for resettlement consideration and the process moves forward. Once the preconditions are met, the refugee is recommended for submission and must complete the resettlement registration form. Once a second review by an UNHCR officer is complete, the submission is then sent to the resettlement country (in this case, the United States.) Once the case is transferred from the UNHCR to the State Department, who screen the applicant and confirm their biographical information, the refugee must then go through an in-person interview with a Department of Homeland Security agent. The interview will determine whether the refugee seeking resettlement has a justifiable fear of being persecuted based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group. If reasonable fear is found, the refugee will then undergo several security checks through the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, ensuring they have no ties with any terrorist groups. Refugees must also go through medical screening tests in an effort to keep diseases and infections like tuberculosis outside of the U.S. Once they receive final approval, refugees then attend a cultural orientation, followed by a process in which NGOs help with placing refugees in one of the 180 cities designated by the U.S. government for resettlement. The cities chosen for refugee resettlement are not based on ethnic or religious concentrations but rather on factors of self-sufficiency. Resettlement organizations try to place refugees in cities that have affordable housing, available jobs and translation services.

Given our current Immigration and Refugee vetting processes, it seems the changes President-elect Trump is outlining are based on xenophobia and preconceived stereotypes about immigrants and refugees. In 2015, data was collected to determine the actual number of refugees in the U.S. who have been involved in plotting acts of terror. Of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, 0.00038 percent were arrested for terror-related activities. Also, data from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that immigrants make up 16 percent of the workforce despite accounting for only 13 percent of the population.

With little to no specific details on how Trump’s plan will be carried out, his proposed immigration plan undoubtedly raises questions about how we as Americans should look at immigrants and refugees who have historically been the backbone of our nation.