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Transcript of USCIS-DOS-HHS Press Call on Syrian Refugee Processing
Aug. 5, 2016
2:30 p.m. EST
Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode until the Question and Answer session of today’s conference. At that time you may press Star 1 on your phone to ask a question.
I would like to inform all parties that today’s conference is being recorded. If you have any objections you may disconnect at this time. I would now like to turn the conference over to Shin Inouye, USCIS. Thank you, you may begin.
Thank you (Sheila) and thank you all for joining us today to discuss the current state of Syrian refugees security screening and admissions. As a reminder this call is on the record and without embargo. On the call we have Assistant Secretary of State, The Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration, Anne C. Richard, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez, and Health and Human Services Director of Refugee Resettlement, Robert “(Bob)” Carey.
We’ll have our speakers offer remarks about their agency’s respective roles in the refugee process and then open up the call to your questions. Let me first turn it over to Assistant Secretary Richard.
Thanks, this is Anne speaking. The United States has been a global leader in the resettlement of refugees. That’s why last year the President made a renewed commitment to help in some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world, pledging to increase the number of refugees we will accept from around the world to 85,000 from 70,000 per year over the last three years. As part of this commitment we also pledged to welcome at least 10,000 refugees fleeing the terrible conflict in Syria.
To that end early in the fiscal year we began working to adjust the capacity of our refugee admissions program, to bring many more refugees to the United States. To welcome more refugees from Syria we worked with the Department of Homeland Security, with our intelligence community and with other relevant agencies to upgrade our capacities to conduct security screening. DHS increased the number of the DHS offices available to interview applicants so that more security screening interviews could take place for more applicants, resulting in more refugees approved for travel.
In Jordan, for example, between February and April of this year we worked with DHS to surge additional staff to Jordan where DHS offices conducted interviews for about 12,000 UNHCR referred refugee applicants. In Beirut, Lebanon we restarted interviews of refugees in February. These had stopped for a year because of space limitations in the embassy compound. In Turkey we added staff to the resettlement support center in Istanbul that covers refugee processing in Turkey and Lebanon and DHS sent additional officers to conduct interviews.
In Iraq we began processing refugee resettlement cases in Erbil in December 2015. Thanks to these efforts and through the coordinated efforts of the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, we can now say that we have 8,000 Syrian refugees so far this year and that we are very confident that we will welcome at least 10,000 refugees from Syria by the end of this fiscal year. Monthly totals have climbed from low numbers of refugees admitted in the first half of the year to higher numbers recently.
In May, June and July the impact of our investments in and the enhancements to the process began to be realized. Our expectation from the beginning was that the rate of Syrian refugee admissions would increase over time as referrals from UNHCR -- the Human Refugee Agency -- UNHCR increased as we added to the capacity to process more cases referred to us and as DHS sent more DHS officers to the field to conduct the necessary rigorous and exhaustive security screening.
Briefly and in closing we want to reiterate that this is just one line of multiple lines of effort that the US government is undertaking to help the victims of terrible conflicts and crisis around the world. I want to remind you all that President Obama will convene the leader’s summit on refugees on the margins of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly in September. This summit is about encouraging all countries to take action and do more now.
Wealthy governments are asked to make new and significant contributions relating to humanitarian financing and refugee resettlement or admissions - other forms of admission to their country. Countries that host refugees are asked to make new commitments related to refugee self-reliance and inclusion, with a specific focus on letting refugees work and allowing refugee children to go to school. The purpose of the summit is to recruit other countries to join with us and make a real difference in the world’s contributions towards helping refugees.
At this point I’d like to turn to my colleague, the head of USCIS, Leon Rodriguez.
Thank you Anne and thank you for your presentation. I too am gratified with the success that we’ve had in refugee admissions, particularly with respect to Syrian admissions. The process that we have applied to reach those admission levels is the same process that we have applied for many years - actually with a few enhancements that have further strengthened that process.
There are basically two critical components to the process and adjudicating, whether an individual is admitted to the United States as a refugee after that individual has been referred to us by the United Nations high commissioner and refugees and by the State Department. The first is to determine - this is what our officers do to determine whether that individual actually qualifies as a refugee - whether they meet the legal definition.
The legal definition that we use is derived from the United Nation’s convention on refugees, and that definition is used by all of the signatory countries to the convention, although in many cases each country interprets the conventions slightly differently. The second aspect and probably particularly critical for this discussion is we determined if -- notwithstanding the fact that the individual meets the legal definition of refugee -- if there is still some basis to deny that individual admission to the United States.
That can occur in one of two ways. In some cases we have - we exercise our discretion. For example if we have concerns about that individual’s credibility. In other cases we may have evidence that that individual falls under a specific category of inadmissibility. For example, if there is evidence that they are a known or suspected terrorist. To do that we used a number of tools. From my perspective the most critical of those tools is the refugee officer - is our highly trained, highly experienced staff that we deployed throughout the world to screen refugees.
Before they get there they have been extensively trained both in the legal tenants surrounding refugee law -- the grounds inadmissibility that I discussed before -- but also very critically in fraud detection and prevention, security protocols, interviewing techniques, credibility analysis.
They’ve also been briefed in country conditions and in regional conditions and again that briefing is often extensive, and the depth of that briefing grows as we spend more time in a particular refugee environment, be that the Syrian environment, the Iraqi environment, the Somalian environment, or as the case may be, the central American environment. The interviews that are conducted by those officers are frequently extensive - pro-credibility issues and pro-particular basis of inadmissibility.
In the specific cases of Syrians there are additional steps that are also taken. All of those cases or the majority of those cases, rather, are subject to something we call Syrian enhanced review, which provides us specific in-depth support both from our Refugee Affairs division and our Fraud Detection and National Security directorate to provide enhanced view of those cases before the interviews even occur overseas. This is intelligence-driven support - for example it yields specific lines of questioning that our officers are prepared to ask.
It also includes social media review of certain Syrian refugee applicants. Additionally and during the course of the interview an officer identifies areas of national security concern about a candidate, and that case moves into what we call the controlled application review and resolution process - essentially a hold process where further investigation and inquiry into that case occurs.
At the same time we have a number of law enforcement and intelligence resources that our officers utilize in order to determine whether there is any derogatory -- and that’s a critical term -- derogatory information about that individual. Those sources can come from State Department databases, databases of customs and border protection, the Department of Defense, but most critically from both the United States law enforcement and intelligence communities, including the FBI as well as a number of intelligence community partners as well.
One particularly important aspect there is a process that we call the intra-agency check which involves queries of a series of intelligence community holdings. That occurs not only prior to the interview of the individual but actually occurs on the recurrent basis during the entire process of that individual’s adjudication, and in many cases actually beyond the period of that individual’s admissions. So that if new derogatory information arises about that individual we are able to act on that derogatory individual - derogatory information at any time that that information may arise.
We have on an ongoing basis the implementing improvements to these processes - much of that is law enforcement sensitive or intelligence community protected. But those improvements have been occurring on an ongoing basis. I believe that this information is very critical because it really rebuts what is a widely held view that in fact we do not have resources against which to vet these individuals.
In fact literally hundreds of individuals from different countries, including hundreds of individuals from Syria, have had their admissions to the United States denied because of information that was found in these databases. Additionally, a number of other individuals have been denied admissions or have been placed on hold because we have determined - we have accessed that there are credibility concerns that have arisen during the interview process.
And that process is the same one that we conducted a year ago, two years ago and last week, and we will continue as we move through the process of screening refugees to apply those methodologies. Thank you.
Thank you Director Rodriguez. Next we’ll hear from Director Carey.
Okay thank you. (Bob) Carey here. We could go to the work of your Office of Refugee Resettlement, under the Refugee Act of 1980 Congress created within the Department of Health and Human Service and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and we are charged with providing refugees with resettlement assistance. This assistance includes employment training and placement, English language instruction, cash assistance and additional social services, all of which are designed to assist refugees in integrating into their new communities and to promote early self-sufficiency.
ORR carries out this work through an extensive public-private partnership network and funding to state governments and non-profit organizations across the US. In fiscal year 2016 ORR expects to serve upwards of 200,000 humanitarian migrants. So these humanitarian migrants include refugees, but also asylees, keeping Asian entrance on unaccompanied refugee minors, victims of torture and unaccompanied children.
Our work includes collaborations at the federal and state level with resettlement agencies, resettled refugees themselves and members of the communities that welcomed them. A central goal of the program is to ensure that states and municipalities have the best information available to help them prepare for incoming refugees. To this end each state has a state refugee coordinator, and often a state refugee health coordinator who oversees services and refugee benefits provisioned to eligible individuals in the given state.
The President’s fiscal year 2017 budget requests include $2.2 billion for ORR programs and that represents the cost of maintaining services for additional refugees and other entrance and unaccompanied children primarily from Central America. The President’s budget request would support a total of 213,000 humanitarian arrivals including 100,000 refugees in 2017. Once a refugee arrives in the US they are eligible to access the same benefits as American citizens who are here legally including temporary aide to newly families, Medicaid, SSI, and SNAP.
When refugees do not meet eligibility requirements for these programs ORR provides time-limited refugee cash assistance and refugee medical assistance. Social services and targeted assistance funds are allocated to states based on a formula tied to the prior two years of refugee arrivals, and that accounts for refugees and other entrance movements to other states after their initial resettlement on their path to legal permanent residence and citizenship.
ORR also supports additional programs to refugees and integrating which include migrant enterprise development assistance for ethnic community organizations, agricultural partnerships and services for survivors of torture. Another critical service we provide is school impact program funding which provides approximately $15 million for activities that assists children in adjusting to school after the trauma of war flight and all too often interrupted education.
As an alternative to access and cash assistance refugees may also enroll in what is known as the Matching Grant program - that’s Intensive Case Management program conducted by private non-profit organizations which assists refugees in finding employment and in economic self-sufficiency - self-sufficiency within four to six months after their arrival in the US and which is funded with a combination of private and government funds. And at the end of the program last year 82% were self-sufficient at the end of 180 days.
In summary, the Office of Refugee Resettlement stands committed to welcoming integrating newcomers into the fabric of our society. We believe this goal benefits not only refugees and their families, but strengthens communities and our nation as a whole and refugee resettlement is a reflection of our core value of who we are as a country, providing protection to individuals fleeing persecution on the basis of their race, religion, political opinions or membership in a social group. So thank you.
Thank you Director Carey and thank you to all of our speakers. Operator if we can go ahead and open it up or if you could provide the instructions for how folks can ask questions.
Thank you. We will now begin the Question and Answer session. If you would like to ask a question please press Star 1 to unmute your phone and record your name clearly. If you need to withdraw your question press Star 2. Again to ask a question please press Star 1.
Our first question comes from Julia Edwards with Reuters - your line is open.
Hi, thank you. I was wondering if you could quantify how many refugees or how refugees were not considered after the additional screening procedures that were put in place by Congress at the end of last year? Or was there anyone who was ruled out as a result of this additional screening measures being put in place?
I think that the screening measures were never actually voted into effect that you’re discussing, so when I talk about screening measures they’re basically the ones that we apply as our part of our ordinary process - that is joined between USCIS, State Department, the law enforcement intelligence community partners. And again what I would say is based on that screening - just speaking to the Syrian case, you know, hundreds - I wouldn’t be able to put a specific number on it now but hundreds have been denied.
There are even larger numbers of individuals who go on hold because concerns have been raised or - and also individuals who are denied on a credibility basis because our officers determined that there are concerns about the accounts that they’re given when we interview them.
Our next question comes from Julie Davis with the New York Times. Your line is open.
Hi there. Well I was hoping you could be more specific about how many of the Syrian applicants had been denied because of the information that was found on the databases or put on hold because of credibility concerns. It sounds like you don’t have those numbers now. Would that be something you could get to us after the call potentially?
Yes we can see if we can get you those numbers. Again what I will share are those numbers are large. When we’re talking still about, you know, we’re talking about 8,000 who have been cleared for admission this year we’re still talking about a substantial number who have either been denied or held because of these types of concerns.
Okay and also I’m wondering whether you can say, based on the up-ticks that you described, just in May, June, July - I assume August, you’re expecting will be the same if not larger in terms of refuge - Syrian refugees resettled. Do you expect that to continue rising into fiscal 2017, and do you have any estimate at all of how many Syrian refugees you may be looking at welcoming as a result of this surge in the next, you know, after the fiscal year ends?
Actually I’m going to share a little bit more of an answer to your first question and I think I’m going to defer to my State Department colleagues. So our approval rates are 80%, denial rate is 7%, and the balance is hold - that kind of reflects the overall universe. So, you know, I can’t give you specific numbers that reflects about our clip of approvals denials and holds.
And Anne I’m wondering if you want to - I don’t know if you’re in a position to talk about next year or not…
Well just to say the current pace of arrivals will continue through the end of this fiscal year so we may exceed 10,000 and for next year we will continue to welcome large numbers of Syrians, but it’s too soon to have a target figure established.
Thank you. And our next question comes from Jared Goyette with PRI. Your line is open.
Hi I was just wondering if you could provide any detail to the I-130 program and if that’s had any impact in terms of the numbers of, you know, the number of Syrian refugees coming in - that’s of course the family petition? Thank you.
No we don’t have numbers for you for this call but we can follow-up on that after the call.
The next question comes from Nick Ballasy with PJ Media News your line is open.
Thanks for taking the question. My first - the first part of my question is among the applications for refugee status that have been denied, you said some of them were denied - was it because of national security or terrorism issues? And then the second part of my question is as you know, if you’re applying for legal status by marrying a US citizen or in a different category, you have to prove you have the financial support and you’re not a public charge and you also have to pay thousands of dollars in fees for those applications.
Why are refugees treated differently than people seeking legal status in the United States through the legal immigration process?
Sure, this is Leon Rodriguez and I’ll invite my colleagues to chime in as well. You know, the fact is that refugees are refugees because they’re often coming out of war-torn countries or countries devastated in some other way. Frequently individuals have been living away from their countries without any means of securing a livelihood, or in many cases when we’re talking about Syrians, of having their children educated. So more typically individuals do not have the economic wherewithal. It’s also - frankly it’s a statutory decision that was made. We do not have authority to charge any kind of fee for refugees - it’s not a legal authority that we have.
And then the issue of the denied applications, was the reason for any of those denials national security or…
…(test) and concerns?
All right (Sheila) if you could move to the next question please?
Absolutely and as a reminder if you would like to ask a question you can press Star 1 on your phone and record your name when prompted. Our next question comes from Lauren Ashburn with EWTN. Your line is open.
Thank you very much and thank you for taking my call. The percentage of those Syrian refugees who have been let into the country - what percent are Muslims? Do you have that breakdown?
Yes, most are Muslims over 99% are Muslims.
And then what percent are of religious (execution) are fleeing (because they) say religious persecution?
I don’t have that breakdown for you.
Okay and then you mentioned, Secretary Carey - you mentioned that 82% are self-sufficient at the end of 180 days and I was wondering how long do the rest of them stay on benefits? How long do you extend the benefits?
The benefits access depends on the category. There are some individuals for whom, you know, refugee cash assistance can be extended for up to eight months for certain individuals, and then others may be eligible for mainstream benefits if they fit the qualifications.
Our next question comes from (Esa Gomez) with ABC News. Your line is open.
I was wondering out of the 8,000 of the admitted refugees how many of them were children?
I should - we should have that number for you. Seventy eight percent were women and children and the number of children we’ll have to get you but let’s see - nearly - let’s see, 4,576 were under 18 - just a little under half female and roughly half male of the children.
Is that of the children or women and children?
So the first number I gave you the 78% were women and children. And then the second that’s 78% out of 8,000. And then the number of children is - or under 18 year olds is 4,576 and they’re roughly half and half men and - girls and boys rather.
Oh okay, thank you.
And again as a reminder you can press Star 1 on your phone and record your name if you have a question. One moment please for any additional questions. We are showing no further questions at this time. (Unintelligible)…
(Unintelligible) (a couple). All right, well thank you (Sheila). Thank you all for joining us. As a reminder this call is on the record and without embargo. If you have any additional questions here are the phone numbers for the respective public affairs offices for the participants on the call. The State Department is at 202-647-2492. Once again The State Department is 202-647-2492. USCIS is at 202-272-1200. Once again USCIS is at 202-272-1200. And HHS is at 202-401-9215. Once again HHS is at 202-401-9215. Thank you very much.
That does conclude today’s conference. Thank you for participating. You may disconnect at this time.
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