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How the refugee screening process works

Posted at 10:05 PM, Feb 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-26 00:06:04-05
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- A refugee is a person forced to leave their country to escape war or persecution.
Refugee Focus is a resettlement agency in Arizona, with offices in Tucson and Phoenix. It's a branch of the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest. Each year the organization resettles about 1,000 refugees in the state with about 300 in Tucson.
"We're talking about refugees not immigrants," said the organization's CEO Connie Phillips. "These are not people resettling for I want a better life. These are people fleeing persecution. They are as afraid as the terrorists as we are."
Around 60,000 refugees have made Arizona home since 1978, including Mohammad Al Khafaji. Al Khafaji, 31, lived in Iraq his whole life and attended university in Baghdad. By the time he left his country in 2014, his three children couldn't play outside. 
"Before? Iraq good. Before. Never now." Al Khafaji said. "Just fighting."
However, officials say refugees are subject to the highest security checks of any U.S. travelers.
"This is not Europe. People are not coming across our borders without having been vetted," Phillips said. "It's as safe as process as it can be. Nothing is going to guarantee anything, but it's a safe a process as can be."
How does the refugee resettlement process work? 
It can take at least 18 months, Phillips said, and in some cases it can take years or even decades.
Applicants have to obtain refugee status from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of the roughly 14 million refugees around the world, the UNHCR reports less than 1% are submitted for resettlement.
Before refugees resettle in the U.S., they are subject to rigorous screenings. Background checks are done with multiple agencies including the F.B.I., the National Counterterrorism Center/Intelligence Community, Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department. These are often repeated any time new information is provided, and the process could be put on hold if additional research needs to be done.
Screenings include in-person interviews, fingerprints are collected, as well as iris scans for Syrian refugees and those from the Middle East. Fingerprints are screened against databases which include watch-list information, and other records.
Medical screenings are also conducted. Applicants complete cultural orientation classes and it's determined the best resettlement location for candidates, taking into account whether or not the person has family in the country. 
Refugee Focus helps get refugees on their feet once they arrive to the U.S. Phillips says they are greeted at the airport and taken to a new home. Refugees get financial help from the government only for a few months, Phillips said, and look for work as soon as they arrive. Other resettlement agencies in Tucson include the International Rescue Committee
Refugees come to the U.S. from countries all over the world. According the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the countries with the highest resettlement rates include Iraq, Vietnam, Bosnia.
Tucson was a foreign place to Al Khafaji. He had never been to America, but spoke some English. At first it was very difficult to get used to, but he has been working as a cook at a local restaurant. When asked how he was treated in America, Al Khafaji says he is extremely grateful to be here and like his home country there are some good people and some bad people.
"In Iraq, any city you have many people," Al Khafaji said. "Some good some no good. When I come here, I see the same."
It can be overwhelming to resettle in a new country, and often the language barrier can be challenging. Refugee Focus offers language classes and other classes to help refugees adjust, and case managers help them find jobs. The organization also offer tours so community members can come in and see what they do. 
"The best, safest thing we can do is to understand that refugees are not just these labels -- refugees," Phillips said. "They are people and they want the same things for their children and future as we do."