State Department Official Explains Aspects Of Refugee Resettlement Process

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Controversy over plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. has sprung up in the wake of the Paris attacks, with a number of politicians calling for a halt to resettlement efforts in their states.

Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the U.S. State Department's population, refugees and migration bureau, joined Morning Edition to explain more about the vetting process, as well as the relationship between the federal government and Massachusetts in the current resettlement system. The interview highlights below have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On whether the vetting process of refugees needs improving

We have the tightest system for any people entering the United States for refugees. It's an 18- to 24-month process where people are checked by multiple U.S. security and intelligence agencies, interviewed personally by American officials of the Department of Homeland Security and very closely vetted. So we think we have a great system.

Our system is continuously tinkered with. Every time we learn a new issue, we change the system. Every time we get a new population of refugees coming into the United States, we change it a little so that it's better for that population. We're very experienced with this. We've brought in three million people over the last 30 years and 700,000 people since 9/11 under increased security requirements.

On the status of refugee resettlement in states expressing concern over safety

We're continuing to send refugees to all these states. It's the federal government's role to maintain and run immigration and refugee policies. However, let me just say that we're working very closely with governors and local officials to try and allay some of their concerns. It's very important that the refugees we bring into the United States arrive to communities which are welcoming, and we don't want to bring them into any hostility or any threatening situations.

On how refugees, Syrian or otherwise, make their way to Massachusetts

Immigration and refugee resettlement is a power of the federal government and always has been. We work with nine refugee resettlement agencies in a public-private partnership. Six of these are faith-based and the faith-based organizations play a large role in resettling refugees in the United States. Once they've cleared through our process, which isn't just security but also medical checks and other checks, we turn the list of arriving refugees over to these resettlement agencies and based on agreements that they've made for the entire year with us, they divide the refugees among themselves, and then they're resettled in 350 sites around the U.S. where these agencies have organizations that work with them.

On the projection for Syrian refugee arrivals to Massachusetts 

It's not possible for us to predict how many Syrian refugees will go where, because the voluntary agencies make those decisions as refugees clear our security system. We have a great system which can let people know where refugees have come in in the past year and past months. That's available at a web site we maintain for anybody who wants to look at it, which is But as it comes for predicting future Syrian arrivals, I'm sure some will come to Massachusetts but I can't make an exact prediction on numbers.

This article was originally published on November 25, 2015.

This segment aired on November 25, 2015.


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Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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