Thoughts on the New Vetting Procedures for Refugees


On October 24th, the 120 day moratorium on refugee resettlement established by President Trump’s first executive order (known as the “travel ban”) ended. The same day President Trump issued a new executive order imposing additional vetting procedures for refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. and extending the moratorium on resettlement for refugees from 11 countries for another 90 days. The result has been a fresh wave of frustration from refugee advocates and ongoing accusations that the Trump administration is simply intent on keeping Muslim refugees out of the U.S. After sitting back and observing this response from my fellow refugee advocates, I have a few thoughts of my own concerning these new vetting procedures for refugees.

Using “Pro-Security” as a Buzzword is No Longer Acceptable

Since the Paris attacks in 2015, refugee resettlement has become an issue of national security. Most refugee advocates have responded to this development by citing Cato Institute statistics and lauding the successful security track record of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and saying that they are “pro-security”. However, since the announcement of these new vetting procedures for refugees, advocates have been united in their protest of these additional security checks as superfluous and unnecessary. This response reveals that being “pro-security” has been simply a buzzword, something many of us say in hopes that it will help the other side listen to our arguments in favor of refugee resettlement.

But empty buzzwords will no longer work if we want to convince conservative audiences of the benefits of refugee resettlement. We can no longer simply say that we are pro-security; we must show it. In his executive order, President Trump states that “more than 300” individuals who arrived in the U.S. through the resettlement program were under FBI counterterrorism investigations at the time of the original “travel ban.” If we feel that the new vetting procedures for refugees are unnecessary, then we must present alternative policies that we believe could be more effective at reducing that number. As an example, I have tried to do this in articles like this one.

Valuing National Security Does Not Mean People are Uncompassionate

The vast majority of American citizens want their government to keep them safe from threats to national security. Indeed, it is their right as citizens to expect this. The U.S. government has every right to impose these new vetting procedures for refugees, even if they are superfluous or unnecessary. The Trump administration, as part of a secular government, has no obligation to extend compassion to citizens of other nations. As a Christian, I can hope that they will be compassionate and I can advocate for them to be, but they have no obligation to do so. Refugee advocates must be very careful not to paint people as unfeeling monsters if they want their elected officials to consider their safety a top priority. (Note: Christians are held to a different standard when it comes to expecting safety, etc., but that is a topic for a future article).

These New Vetting Procedures for Refugees are Not Illegal

While not assuming that those who value security are uncompassionate, refugee advocates must also be careful not to label these new vetting procedures as illegal or unconstitutional. As stated in the executive order, they are neither of these things. When refugees seek resettlement in the U.S. the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that they are who they claim to be and that they have no ties to terrorism and no intent to do harm to American citizens. While it can be argued that these new vetting procedures place an undue burden on vulnerable people to produce information they may not have access to, that does not make the vetting requirements illegal.

It is also not unreasonable (and certainly not illegal) for the government to expect that those refugees coming from countries with significantly higher threats of terrorism and terrorist activity be expected to pass more stringent requirements than others. The fact that the countries where terrorism is rampant are overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries does not in and of itself prove that the Trump administration is operating from racist motivations. The administration has no control over which countries have more unrest or terrorist activity than others. However, if Christians or other minorities from those countries were to be exempted from some of the vetting requirements that Muslims are held to, then that would quite clearly be discriminatory.

While Not Illegal, These New Vetting Procedures May Be Immoral or Unethical

The new vetting procedures for refugees, though not illegal in any way, may be considered immoral or unethical for several reasons. First, if they are unnecessary to reasonably secure the safety of American citizens from threats to national security. The difficulty with this is that it is very difficult to measure where the line is between reasonable and unreasonable vetting requirements. If the program secured the safety of Americans at a rate of 96% before, and these new procedures raise it to 97%, does that justify implementing them? Or are they only justified if they raise the level of safety to 98%?

These additional procedures could also be considered immoral or unethical if they arise from a motivation within the administration to curtail the entry into the US of foreign-born nationals of other races, ethnicities, or religions, due to a belief or opinion that such individuals are inherently less valuable than other people. Unfortunately, there is no effective way for us to determine the motivations and beliefs of President Trump or others in his administration.

Finally, these additional vetting procedures could be considered immoral or unethical if, barring a sinister motivation on the part of the administration, they have been implemented based on biased or incorrect information about the costs and benefits of refugees and immigrants to American society or about their national security risks. While President Trump himself may not believe that individuals from certain races or religions are inherently less valuable than other people, he may be receiving faulty information about refugees that is informing his policy decisions. This is perhaps most probable, but also nearly impossible to prove. Because refugee resettlement has become so tied to concerns of national security, American citizens are unable to access classified information which could shed light on this possibility. Overall, there is no effective way to hold the administration and national intelligence agencies accountable for their motivations or the accuracy of their intelligence. This means that there is no way to determine whether or not the imposition of these new vetting procedures for refugees is immoral or not.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In light of these reflections on the latest executive order, the message of refugee advocates needs to change. While I am suggesting the following two changes, I realize there may be many other ways to more effectively advocate for refugees.

First, refugee advocates must stop using the term “pro-security” as a buzzword and we must begin to show in concrete terms that we do actually value security. We cannot oppose these new vetting procedures for refugees without proposing alternatives. Second, we should focus our energy on pressing the Trump administration to raise the resettlement ceiling, rather than decrying the new vetting procedures. If these new procedures improve the safety of the program as much as the administration has claimed, then they should not hesitate to provide safe haven to as many refugees as possible.

If you have thoughts or questions about the new vetting procedures for refugees, please leave them in the comments below.