U.S. Hasn't Cut Refugee Screening to 3 Months -- But It Could

A Syrian child plays during a visit by actress Ashley Judd, U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Goodwill Ambassador, to Al Zaatari r
A Syrian child plays during a visit by actress Ashley Judd, U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Goodwill Ambassador, to Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, April 10, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

America covered just 13 percent of its 2016 Syrian refugee goal halfway through the fiscal year. Fortunately, as we noted this week, the administration started sending many more refugee officers to Jordan to finish interviewing its 10,000 applicants in time. This week, the Associated Press reported that this interview surge, which began on February 14, has already resulted in one family being sent to the United States and will reduce processing times to 3 months.

Although it is a welcome prospect, other outlets have reported the promise of lower processing times as if they have already been cut. This isn't true.

Take the family who was reportedly brought over "under the surge." The Associated Press story leaves the unintended impression that the family was cleared in less than two months. Taghreed Risheq, a Jordanian journalist who attended the same press conference as the Associated Press, told us through email that the family was actually in the U.S. pipeline for 14 months. They were interviewed under the surge toward the end of the process.

The fact is that many, if not most, of the refugees being interviewed under the surge had many of their refugee security checks done before the interview stage. The interview enters midway through the process, not at the beginning.

Whether this surge can cut the absolute minimum refugee processing time from a worldwide average of 18 to 24 months to three remains to be seen. Until it actually happens, it should not simply be taken for granted that it will happen. It should be deemed another promise until completed. After all, the administration promised 85,000 refugees would be admitted this year--something that it is also not on pace to meet.

The reduction in security processing delays should not be confused with a reduction in security. The surge in interviews will not shortcut the refugee screening process. All security checks still must be completed, but rather than forcing the refugees to wait in Jordan for months to be interviewed, they will be interviewed almost immediately by the hundreds of new refugee officers in Jordan.

Representing 10,000 Syrians as unprecedented is also inaccurate. In Iraq, the United States admitted almost 20,000 refugees in both 2013 and 2014, proving that the United States has the ability to process large numbers of refugees in a year. Even then, however, it took years to move the refugees into the pipeline.

Is it possible that the administration could cut the refugee processing times to three months? It's virtually impossible that the average time could ever be cut so low, given that certain candidates will always be caught up in security processing. For example, any candidate who ever lived in the Islamic State territory will be subject to extra scrutiny under the material support for terrorism statute, which is broad enough to include "taxes" (i.e. extortion) paid to ISIS.

The absolute minimum pre-surge delay was nine months. It is possible that the United States could interview so many candidates--the current rate, according to the Associated Press report, is 600 per day in Jordan--that it has such a large pool that it finds cases with easier stories to verify. Most of these candidates, however, will have to wait until next year for an opportunity to resettle in the United States.

As we noted this week, one recent change that will help some candidates move quickly is the extension of Priority-2 refugee processing to Syrians. The P2 program allows Syrians who have been sponsored for a green card by a family member in the United States but are stuck in the visa backlog, to apply directly for refugee status in the United States without waiting for a United Nations referral.

By virtue of their relationship to U.S. citizens, these cases are easier to adjudicate--we know who they are with DNA-level certainty. Since they are already eligible to eventually be admitted to the country, they provide a pool of easier refugee applications to adjudicate. It also helps that many Syrians in this category are religious minorities subject to genocide in Syria.

Last year, the Canadians showed that rapid refugee processing is possible, resettling more than 25,000 refugees in a three month period. Clearly, it can be done.

The two most important points are these: a possible reduction in delays in that process remains a promise, not a reality, and the security process for refugees will remain the same. There is simply no security gained by creating long waits for refugees. We should admit refugees as quickly as checks can be completed and get these most vulnerable victims of violence and persecution to safety.

Cross-posted from NiskanenCenter.org