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Local Iraqi refugee explains ‘rigorous and fair’ vetting process

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- The already lengthy resettlement process for many Middle Eastern refugees is now on hold.

President Donald Trump's executive order bars refugees from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from traveling to the United States for the next four months.

The move comes as many US leaders call for greater scrutiny in the refugee application process. Refugees from those seven Muslim-majority countries are banned for the next four months.

"USA is dream to everyone in Iraq, to be able to come here," Muhanad Azzawi said.

It's a dream that didn't come easy for Azzawi, an Iraqi refugee.

"We went through three years, or three and a half years of check," he said.

The total time for an application to clear depends on the applicant's location and many other factors. According to the Department of State, it takes an average of 18 to 24 months from start to finish. In Azzawi and his family's case, it took much longer.

Azzawi first applied for resettlement in 2011. He and his brother and sister thought it was just too dangerous to stay in Iraq.

"The situation in Iraq had become really, really bad, and it’s unbearable," he said.

The refugee application process is far from simple.

Azzawi went through background checks with multiple government agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI. Two in-depth interviews followed, where Azzawi says the Department of Homeland Security probed into his personal life and background.

"The first most common question that will be asked to every single Iraqi which is, 'How involved are you with the Sadam’s army?'" he said. "I was forced by Sadam’s government when I was just in high school to be trained in weapons for two months."

Azzawi's fingerprints were cross-checked with watch lists in the US and overseas.

"They have to make sure I don’t have those kinds of crazy thoughts," he said.

Next came a medical check and a cultural orientation class. Then, Azzawi got the call: He would be allowed to live in North Carolina.

"It was the most amazing feeling I have ever felt," he said.

We don't know what Trump's promise of "extreme vetting" means exactly. The Trump administration has yet to make specific recommendations.

Azzawi believes the process he went through is rigorous and fair. He has faith that US intelligence will prevent terrorists from getting in.

"The bad people are known and they will be recognized," he said.

Now, Azzawi's preparing to celebrate his third anniversary living in the United States.

"North Carolina, USA now, this is my home," he said. "I’m loving it here, and I’m proud and I can proudly say that I’m American. And I’m glad to be part of this amazing country.”

Since 1975, more than 3.2 million refugees have settled in the United States.

In 2016, nearly 85,000 refugees came to the US. About 72 percent (about 61,200) of those were women and children.

Azzawi went through these steps before he was approved to resettle in the US. The information comes from the US Refugee Admissions Program under the Department of State.

1: Registration and Data Collection
- Refugees must first apply for resettlement through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
- Their documentation and biographical information goes to the Department of State's Resettlement Support Center (RSC). They conduct an in-depth interview and send information to other US agencies to begin background checks.
- The DOS Worldwide Refugee Admission Processing System (WRAPS) cross-references all data.

2: Security Checks Begin
- Many agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community begin screening the applicant.
- Check for security threats, past immigration experiences, or criminal violations. Syrian applicants require an additional DHS review.

3: DHS Interview
- DHS officers conduct an in-person interview in home country and get biometric data (fingerprints).
- They conduct a new interview with each piece of information that comes in. New information goes into WRAPS for additional security checks as needed.
- If inconsistences are found, the case is put on hold until they're resolved.

4: Biometric Security Check
- Fingerprints are checked in the FBI biometric database, the DHS biometric database (includes watch-list information and previous immigration info), and the Department of Defense database.
- Cases with any problematic results are denied at this point.

5: Cultural Orientation and Medical Check
- Applications take a class to teach them about American culture, customs, and practices
- DHS performs a medical screening.

6: Assignment to Domestic Resettlement Locations and Travel
- Representatives from nine domestic resettlement agencies meet once a week to decid where to settle each refugee.
- The International Organization for Migration (IOM) books travel for the refugees.
- Applications go through screenings from US Customs and Border Protection and the TSA's Secure Flight Program.

7: Arrival in the US
- Representatives welcome refugees at the airport and take them to their new community.