Fact Check: If You're a Refugee, Is It Easy to Slip into the US?

David Miliband has said that the hardest way into the US is to enter as a refugee. Is he correct?


David Miliband, former MP in the UK and current head of International Rescue Committee, caused a stir this weekend when he declared on television that “the toughest way to get into the US is as a refugee”. Citing this as his key objection to the Trump administration’s recent policy changes.

But is this a fact?

First, the process that he refers to is a long and arduous one. We break it down for you here.

  • To enter the United States as a refugee one must first be classified as a refugee; as designated by the UN, a US embassy, or certain NGOs. You must then be referred for possible resettlement in the USA.

  • You must then have an extensive interview with the State Department.

  • Then, undertake a series of 2-3 background checks in a row.

  • Here begins three rounds of fingerprinting and photo-taking. In order to facilitate cross-referencing with FBI and Homeland Security databases.

  • A possible extra review goes here, if the refugee in question is from an extra-unpleasant place, like Syria.

  • At this point an extensive face-to-face interview with a Homeland Security officer occurs.

  • The approval of the Department of Homeland Security must be granted for anything further to take place.

  • Medical checks and contagious disease screening.

  • Cultural orientation class.

  • Resettlement discussion and explanation of that process.

  • Another series of background checks across several US government agencies, as the process has taken place of a span of time that relevant data may have changed since step 3.

  • Final security check upon arrival in the USA.

  • Begin applying for a Green Card. The list of things needed to do that is too long for us to include here.

    This series of actions can take “12 to 18 months on average”, not including steps 1 and 13, which can take years on their own.

    While the difficulties of the American immigration system have been commented on before, both humorously and in all seriousness, this element of it is clearly as difficult, as thoroughly dedicated to knowing everything about you, and as dedicated to caution as any other part of the system.

    For comparison, a person wishing to study in the United States can expect an F-1 visa to take less than 120 days, and has to undergo a much less intensive vetting process. Citizens of some nations don’t even require visas to get into the US at all.

    So, was David Miliband correct with his statement? As a general finding, yes. Before you can enter the United States as a refugee you must undergo extensive background checks and a process long enough to make even the most patient of people go mad. As Big Think has shown before, the odds of a refugee causing you harm are low to say the least.

    This is, in large part, because of the already extensive screening and vetting process that refugees have to pass through before they can enter the United States at all. The statement of Mr. Miliband is the fact.

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    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

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    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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