New guidelines will apply to applicants who have already been pre-screened (Reuters)
The Trump administration will require all refugees to provide information about their whereabouts going back a decade, twice as long as before, during screening for admission to the United States, starting on Wednesday, according to a State Department document seen by Reuters.
The US government is also pausing requests for advanced security screening, effectively halting the admission of most adult male refugees from the 11 countries that require such screening.
The government has instructed organisations that process refugees abroad not to put in requests for that kind of screening, known as a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO), until new guidelines are sent.
As of the end of 2016, SAOs were required for most adult male nationals of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, as well as for some Palestinians, according to a State Department document seen by Reuters. Three sources familiar with refugee processing said that list was still current.
The changes, which the memo said will take effect on Wednesday, come at the end of a 120-day ban on most refugees that was ordered by President Donald Trump to allow a review of vetting processes. The 120 days are up on Tuesday.
With the refugee ban expiring, the Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed the second of two cases it took up in June challenging travel restrictions the administration announced in March. This means the court will not rule on whether the refugee ban or the separate, now-expired 90-day ban on people entering the US from six predominantly Muslim countries were lawful.
Trump's new travel restrictions announced on 24 September affect eight countries and have also been challenged in court. Two different judges have blocked the new policy, which does not include a refugee ban.
Trump took office in January with a goal of sharply cutting refugee admissions, in line with the hard-line immigration policies that were a focal point of the Republican’s 2016 election campaign. He quickly issued the temporary bans on refugees and travelers from some Middle Eastern and African countries that were challenged in court.
Opponents of the bans argued that the policies were aimed at barring Muslims from the United States. The administration argued that its travel ban and security changes were meant to protect the United States from terrorist acts.
The State Department memo outlines few new procedures for refugee screening, but it strengthens some existing ones. Going forward, for example, all refugees will have to provide "phone, email and address information going back ten years instead of five" for all places where they have lived for more than 30 days.
The memo also says the US government will require the collection of current phone and email addresses for all family members of refugees. At present, that information is usually collected only for relatives with connections to the United States, according to a person familiar with refugee processing.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley meets South Sudanese refugees at camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, 24 October (Reuters)
The new requirements will put an additional burden on refugees fleeing war, famine or ethnic cleansing, whose lives have often been upended and whose family members may be scattered across the world, refugee advocates said.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the new procedures, referring questions to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS spokesman Dave Lapan said there would be an announcement on refugees later on Tuesday.
A State Department official declined to answer questions about the changes, but said the administration had conducted the refugee screening review "to uphold the safety of the American people" and added the conclusion of the review would be made public soon.
Pause on enhanced screening
The new screening guidelines will apply not only to refugees starting the pre-screening process but also to those who have already been pre-screened and are scheduled for a more extensive interview, according to the State Department document.
The document also said that anyone who had already completed the interview process and been referred for an SAO, a higher level of security screening by multiple federal agencies, would have to be re-interviewed to ask the additional questions.
The memo said that refugee processing centres abroad will not be able to request new SAOs for refugees until there is further guidance from the government. The centres request the SAOs on the basis of guidelines issued by the US government.
Reuters reported last week that the Trump administration was considering expanding the mandatory SAOs to include women from the 11 countries. It was not immediately clear if that change had been finalised and will be part of the new refugee vetting process.
It was also not clear when the State Department would issue the further guidance referenced in the memo. Without a completed SAO, refugees from those countries will not be able to travel to the United States, advocates said.
Citizens of the 11 countries, plus Palestinians, comprised 44 percent of the nearly 54,000 refugees admitted into the United States in the 2017 fiscal year, according to State Department data.
Of the countries, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Iran sent by far the most refugees to the United States. All but two of the countries, North Korea and South Sudan, are majority Muslim, though many of the refugees that come from those countries are religious minorities in their own states.
Of the nearly 2,600 Iranian refugees who resettled in the United States as refugees last year, for instance, a majority were of various Christian sects, according to State Department data.