Ahmed Altalib said he waited six years in his native Iraq and underwent a rigorous vetting process before being granted refugee status in the United States. It took another year – and the intervention of a member of Congress – before his wife could join him in Sacramento. His parents and siblings are still waiting, marooned in Turkey as war wracks their home nation.
Altalib, 30, is one of millions of international refugees who have resettled in the United States in recent decades after undergoing what they describe as a complicated and sometimes confusing vetting system. With President Donald Trump now blocking the arrival of all refugees for 120 days and suspending visits by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Altalib and other refugees are wondering if their friends and relatives will ever join them in the United States.
“I’ve been following the Twitter account for President Donald Trump,” Altalib said Monday, “and I don’t think we will get anything to give me some hope.”
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Altalib’s case is an extreme one. Immigration experts said the process for refugee visas typically takes between 18 months and three years, during which applicants undergo screenings by counterterrorism agents, medical exams and other checks. Still, Altalib was also lucky. Of the more than 21 million refugees registered with the United Nations, 85,000 were granted resettlement in the United States last year.
The United States has admitted an average of 78,000 refugees each year since 1975, according to the State Department. Refugee admissions ranged from a low of 20,000 in 1977 to a high of 207,000 in 1980. California gets more refugees than any other state; last year, about one in 10 refugees who came to the United States resettled in California.
Among a series of executive orders, Trump vowed last week to work out an “extreme vetting” process for refugee applicants, adding more scrutiny to a system that Sacramento-area refugees and some immigration experts say is already extensive.
“We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” Trump said at the Pentagon on Friday.
Trump’s order capped the number of refugees allowed in the nation each year at 50,000, compared to the 78,000 a year that Barack Obama let in, on average, over his eight years in office.
For the world’s refugees, the process of finding a new home begins when they register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which builds a biographical file on each applicant. Those who are accepted and want to apply to the United States are referred to a resettlement support agency to begin a series of background checks by federal authorities, including national counterterrorism agents, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Federal agents conduct in-person interviews with potential refugees overseas. Fingerprints are run through terrorism watchlists, and refugees undergo medical testing. Syrian refugees are subjected to more rigorous background checks.
Refugees who make it through the process are matched with organizations in the United States that offer English-language classes, help place children into schools and assist adults in finding employment and housing. The Sacramento region has a network of such groups, and the area has become one of the nation’s top destinations for refugees. Even so, a Sacramento Bee investigation last year found that many Afghan refugees who served with the U.S. military ended up living in substandard housing in Sacramento and struggled to find jobs.
Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, said refugees undergo layers of vetting beyond what typical visa applicants go through, most notably extra scrutiny by counterterrorism officials. He said that’s not surprising, given that most refugees flee war-torn nations with unreliable government databases of their own.
“Overall, (becoming a refugee is) the hardest way to get into the United States,” Gude said, adding that many other visa applications are processed in a matter of weeks.
Immigration advocates point out that no refugee has committed an act of terrorism on U.S. soil since 1980, when the current system for admitting refugees was put in place.
Critics of the current system cite a lack of reliable information from foreign governments as cause for concern. They argue that even in relatively stable countries, there’s no guarantee that governments are sharing reliable or truthful information on refugees.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said getting reliable data from foreign countries is a vital safeguard against permitting refugees who want to do the nation harm.
“In order to do the vetting, you have to have some databases, something to check the background against,” he said. “In places like Syria, that simply doesn’t exist. We don’t know what’s going on, and the sheer number of refugees could make it easier for al-Qaida or ISIS to slip people in.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter controls, said he expects the vetting process established during Trump’s moratorium to include “ideological tests.” Trump’s executive order states that the United States should not “admit those who do not support the Constitution” or “those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
“The goal is to keep out people who are enemies of our basic constitutional values, even if they’re not violent,” he said. “The question is, do they support the basic values of a liberal free society – freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Part of our goal in screening should be to keep people out who believe in retrograde values, even if they’re not going to use violence.”
In Sacramento, Mohammad Marouf Sharifi underwent an extensive vetting process to be granted a Special Immigrant Visa, which is awarded to translators, guides and others who have aided the U.S. military. About 10,000 Afghans and Iraqis have been resettled in California under the program.
Sharifi said he, his wife, Maleha, and their three children waited more than three years to receive clearance to leave Afghanistan and come to Sacramento. During that time, Sharifi said, the family went twice for medical exams at an American hospital. They filed paperwork detailing the threats they faced because of his collaboration with the U.S. military. The process stretched so long that he had to ask an American military commander to write a letter of recommendation twice because he had to resubmit the application. He was with U.S. units when they were targets of more than 40 ambushes, he said.
The family finally left Dubai in September 2015 after saying painful goodbyes to family who stayed behind. “Everybody was crying,” Sharifi said. “Everybody was saying, ‘You are leaving them forever.’ But we had to do it.”
He said he now worries that fear and hatred of refugees will become contagious in the United States, particularly in light of Trump’s executive order.
“I know that some Muslims are bad,” he said. “We, as Muslims, think they are not true Muslims. We believe that true Muslims don’t hurt anybody.”
Back in Iraq, Altalib was given two weeks’ notice that his travel to the United States had been approved. Upon arrival, he filed a petition to bring over his wife. Altalib said he eventually enlisted the help of Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, whose office arranged an interview for his wife with immigration authorities. Rahamah Altak, now 25, arrived in Sacramento in December 2014.
Since then, Altalib has worked to arrange visas for the rest of his family, all of whom traveled to Istanbul in 2014 because of the presence of Islamic State extremists in Iraq. The most recent security check for his parents took 18 months, at the end of which they were denied “for security reasons.”
“It’s very distressing,” he said. “We are not able to resettle completely in the United States, and we cannot go there (Turkey). There are no job opportunities in Turkey.”
Altalib has won permanent residency in the United States. His wife gave birth to their first baby on Dec. 4; they named the girl Sara.
“I chose a name that is international,” Altalib said, “to let her have a good life.”