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Refugee resettlement a 'very selective, almost handpicked process'


International terrorist attacks have refugee resettlement programs under a national microscope and many concerned about safety. WGVU talks to a local agency to learn about resettlement protocols.

Chris Cavanaugh is the refugee program manager at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, an agency directly providing state and local resettlement services.

"It’s really hard to get into the U.S. refugee program," he says. "It’s a very, very selective – almost handpicked process."

Cavanaugh says it takes up to two years and sometimes longer before a case reaches his desk. That's before the refugee or family arrives.

"It’s quite a contrast to the European model, or present situation. That’s more of an asylum situation, where people are intentionally coming into the country and then seeking protection at that point," he says. "The U.S. program takes much longer – you can’t come into the U.S. and then become a refugee. You’re a refugee overseas and then you have to be vetted and cleared."

"The Syrians that we've helped so far - it's taken them two or three years from their initial time of application to the U.S.  to go through that whole process."

Cavanaugh says it starts with the United Nations, which vets cases by international as well as U.S. protocols. If a referral happens, it goes to the U.S. Department of State.

Then the applicant goes through levels of interviews, fingerprinting and background checks by international and interagency groups. Security checks include the applicant's immediate family as well as his or her family tree.

Stateside, active agencies include the FBI, CIA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"So those three checks themselves can take anywhere from six months to a year. They’re time sensitive – so they do [the background checks] and then they expire," Cavanaugh says. "And so they all have to align, along with the medical clearance that they have to get get. All those have to be current and vetted and approved, and unexpired all at once.”

Prior to departure, the refugee must go through security clearance again. If anything’s changed, or a medical issue has come up, the person may need to start over. 

"For example, I have cases in our system that may have been approved in 2011 or (2012) and for reasons kind of unknown to us necessarily ... they haven’t been able to travel," Cavanaugh says.

"They’re in refugee camp settings and there can be medical things that need to be taken care of first. Or sometimes they have children, and then they're not able to travel, and need to update their case. All this is a constant, ongoing process."

Cavanaugh says political and governmental issues and loopholes in a refugee’s asylum country can also further delay approval or movement.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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