Eyewitness to Vetting

I am an overweight white guy whose great^5-grandfather served under George Washington during the Revolution. Two years ago, I had an unusual opportunity to observe some of the visa applicant vetting procedures from a foreigner’s perspective.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and if you run into an African in the United States, there’s a pretty good chance that they’re from Nigeria. Until recently, about 10% of the oil that went into American gas tanks actually came out of the ground in the swamps of Nigeria, so it’s a lot more important to our national security than many realize.

The CEO of a local Nigerian company that is a business partner of ours was denied a visa to come to a business meeting in the United States, and one of my American colleagues was tasked with pleading his case at the embassy. He asked me to come along.

We get an appointment and at the appropriate time head to the embassy in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. As our taxi enters the embassy neighborhood, there is a checkpoint run by the local police. This was just the first in a series of security checks. It’s not pro-forma. In 2011, a Boko Haram suicide bomber drove a pickup full of explosives into the United Nations headquarters right down the street, killing 21 and injuring 60.

There is another checkpoint at the parking lot where the taxi drops us off; this one is run by the local equivalent of the FBI. The U.S. embassy is a self-contained fortress. There is an entrance for Americans, but since we are there on behalf of a Nigerian national, we’re directed to the visitors’ entrance.

At the visitors’ entrance, we go through a thorough security check with walk-through metal detectors. In the Emerging World, these are sometimes pretty casual and occasionally not even functional. Not so in this case. We are carefully checked by Nigerian security employees of the embassy.

From the visitors’ entrance, there is a pleasant but walled and well-controlled path to the visas section of the main building.  At the entrance to the building, we undergo yet another check, again by Nigerians with American supervision.

The section that we are in is a sparse waiting room with rows of chairs. Up front it’s rather like a bank, with American state department workers behind bullet-proof glass. The person we’re there to see is running late, so we sit down to wait.

Around us are a wide variety of Nigerians, each in their best clothes and clutching their paperwork. Most appear to be college students. The rest look like business people. Just to get here, they’ve already submitted a ton of paperwork, paid a lot of money, and already passed preliminary screening.

Every five minutes or so, a name is called out and the person walks up to the glass. The State Department worker has a conversation with them. This is the dreaded vetting interview. It’s clear from their body language and tone that every one of these conversations is incredibly intense for the Nigerian participant. The worker behind the glass can (and frequently does!) accept or deny their visa based completely upon their gut feeling, with no reason needed or given.

After watching a few of them, there are some patterns.

About a third of people are turned away because of something to do with their paperwork. Many have poor literacy and the forms are complex, so there’s plenty of room for mistakes and misunderstandings. These people leave with frustration. The interview cost them at least $160, more for some visa types, and the average daily wage is $1.50. Now they will have to redo something, reschedule, pay again, and do the entire thing over again. They’re leaving unhappy but trying to not burn bridges through their attitude.

Another third of people are approved. Huge grins! Some of them literally throw their hands up in the air as if they’d just scored a touchdown. And so they have: they soon will have the magic visa to go to America, where the streets are paved with gold. Even when they return to their own country, they will spend the rest of their lives in relatively high paying whitecollar jobs because of the education, connections, and other resources they get there.

The remaining third are disconsolate. When their visas are denied, they burst into tears or cry out. Some sag to the floor. They are destined to remain in their $1.50 / day existence for the rest of their lives. All the time and money they have spent on this application process are wasted. They will never receive the education they had hoped for. This ends their dream because there is no appeal process for most.

It’s a really REALLY intense and emotional process to watch. There’s so much riding on it for each of these people. It’s like being in a ward where the doctors are telling half the people they have cancer and the other half that they are healthy.1200px-visas_mantis

What even some of the winners don’t appear to realize is that they’re not home free after the vetting interview. The State Department worker often requests a Security Advisory Opinion check. These take a variety of forms and can take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year.

Eventually (2 hours late!) we are called. As Americans, we get special treatment. We are ushered to a separate interview room with a table and chairs. There’s a bullet-proof glass partition running down the center of the room, with the table continuing on the other side.

A supervisor from the State Department comes in to the other side of the glass to talk to us. He supposedly has the CEO’s application in front of him. He leafs through it and says the CEO can apply again. Then he says, “Let me give you some advice. Often times, on a short-term business visa we just want to be sure that someone is going to leave again. Make sure the guy has business ties and a family in Nigeria. And send him to Paris for a weekend. If he comes back, that’s past behavior indicating he’s a good risk to return when he’s supposed to.”

Whatever the guy was doing, he wasn’t reading our man’s dossier. The CEO has a wife, a bunch of children, and a successful local business. It’s hard to imagine anyone with stronger ties to his local community. Never-the-less, like everyone else, we have no recourse except to smile and nod. And wonder how we’re going to explain a Paris junket on our financials. We leave the embassy without ever coming into physical contact with an American.

So that was what vetting was like. Except not really. This wasn’t refugee screening. This was just for an ordinary business or student visa, which anyone can in theory apply for if they’ve got enough money. Vetting for refugees is far more intense.

It starts with a UN screening while people are sitting in a refugee camp. The UN aid workers are closest to the action and have the most direct first-hand information about people’s backgrounds and community. They approve less than 1% of all refugees for potential resettlement in any country. Right off the bat, that eliminates anything except the crème of the crop. Nearly all are widows with young children.

Then they start a paperwork process which takes about 18 months, or much MUCH longer in some cases. A bunch of forms asking for everything under the sun are filled out. Then they are screened separately by:

  • National Counter Intelligence Center / Intelligence Community

  • FBI

  • Department of Homeland Security

  • State Department

Any of these organizations can say no for any reason at all without providing an explanation. Their denial is non-appealable and permanently halts the process. If they are coming from Syria, there is a separate USCIS Fraud Detection review.

Then Department of Homeland Security conducts a separate vetting interview. They collect fingerprints which are checked against all three national biometric databases:

  • FBI

  • DHS

  • DOD

There is a medical exam. All refugees entering the United States must be in good health. The refugees also attend cultural orientation classes prior to entry. Many of these are actually subbed out to Christian faith-based groups.

Finally, the International Organization for Migration books their travel. Then they are subject to two final in-person security checks. The first is by US Customs and Border Protection before they depart their intermediate country, and the second is by the Transportation Security Administration when they arrive in the United States.

Here’s the kicker, and the real reason it takes so long: if absolutely anything, down to the tiniest detail on the tiniest form, changes, the entire process starts over again from scratch. Oh, you stayed in six different camps before this, but forgot the one you were only in for one week five years ago? Back to the beginning for you! Or you got malaria in the camp, or yellow fever, or pregnant, or anything else which changes your health status? Back to start… This can happen over and over.

If they actually get through all of this, they are met in the United States by case workers from one of a handful of major organizations like the International Relief Committee (IRC), who help them locate initial housing and get plugged into the community. Once again, much of this work is subbed out to churches and Christian faith-based groups.