In order to get off the list of countries whose refugees will soon be barred from the United States, the Iraqi government has agreed to share a lot more information. Baghdad also will move quickly to repatriate refugees when they’ve broken the law, U.S. officials told reporters Monday morning. Those are the key reasons why President Trump’s new executive order, signed Monday to take effect on March 16, deletes Iraq from the list of Muslim-majority countries whose citizens are banned from entry.
But the governments of the remaining six — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — will have a harder time pulling the same trick. When Trump announced his original ban on Jan. 27, Defense Department officials expressed concern that it would undermine military operations in Iraq diplomatically, by causing friction with an ally in the fight against ISIS, and personally, by preventing the long-planned resettlements of interpreters and other Iraqis who helped U.S. forces over the years.
To secure a new agreement with the Trump administration, Iraqi officials “had agreed to enhance some of their travel documentation capabilities…bringing some of their travel documents up to standards that are much desired on behalf of the United States government,” a senior U.S. official told reporters on Monday. “The information sharing, using some of the information it has on its own nationals,” was key to that, and was “extremely beneficial” in getting Iraq off the list, according to the official.
Bottom line: Iraq stepped up to play a bigger role in the vetting process.
It’s not clear what additional information Baghdad will share with Washington. Neither U.S. officials on the call nor other DHS employees that Defense One contacted independently would elaborate.
Currently, all refugees are vetted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which interviews and collects information about people before referring them to the United States or other countries for resettlement. DHS uses the same data to make determinations about refugees.
A senior officials with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency official said Monday that the agency was very happy to continue to use the UN information and said that the process works fine. But he acknowledged that the “main interest” of the UNHCR process is to determine “if a person’s claimed information classifies them as a refugee,” not necessarily detailed security checks. So while there’s nothing wrong with the UN data, more data on refugees could be helpful, according to the official, who spoke on background because he was not authorized to discuss vetting concerns publicly.
DHS can share information it collects on asylum seekers with the Defense Department’s Automated Biometric Identification System, ABIS. In places like Iraq, where more Defense personnel are on hand to conduct interviews and collect biometric information, DHS has the opportunity get more info from the Defense Department.
More data, and especially a greater variety of data, won’t necessarily tell border agents if someone from Syria intends to join ISIS, but it can help guards reach a higher level of confidence that that person being screened is who they say that they are, according to the CBP official. It’s one reason why DHS is looking to accelerate the biometric collection of iris and fingerprint data for people entering the country and also leaving the country, eventually broadening the range of data collected to include voice. (There is currently no timeline for when that entry and exit collection process will be fully implemented, officials told reporters on Monday morning.)
For DHS, biometric information, alongside other identifying information such as addresses, phone records, certificates of birth, etc. provides greater assurance of identity than does one piece of information by itself, so better information sharing between governments is key to creating more certainty about the identities of refugees for DHS, said the CBP official.
But that sets up a Catch-22 that leaves many refugees in a terrible situation. The governments of most countries that produce refugees have screening abilities insufficient to U.S. standards, are hostile to the United States, or both. They are not in a good position to enter into a satisfactory information sharing agreement with the United States, the CBP official confirmed.
Information gathered from third party countries with which the U.S. has a positive relationship, such as Australia, Canada, and various European countries, can add another layer of reassurance, said the official. That could go a long way toward removing some of the other countries from the list.