What “Vetting” Actually Means

Syrian refugees on their way to EU, Serbia-Croatia border“Vetting” is a term rarely used in everyday English. Nevertheless, it has appeared regularly in recent coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis and the mass movement of Middle-Eastern migrants into Europe. Media outlets and government officials have repeatedly discussed vetting as if it were some magical process that grants access to otherwise inaccessible information. But what does vetting really mean?

Simply put, vetting means conducting a background check on someone. If you have ever applied for a credit card or renewed a drivers’ license, you have been vetted. Vetting may consist of conversations with references, as when applying for a job; or it may consist of a review of information found in computerized databases, as when applying for a home loan.

The vetting example most familiar to Americans is when a police officer pulls you over for speeding, asks for a license and registration, then returns to his car and checks a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) database. He can confirm your identity, see how many prior traffic violations you may have committed and make sure you have auto insurance.

The police example highlights some of the difficulties associated with vetting refugees and other people seeking immigration benefits. In the United States, we regularly engage in business and governmental transactions where we furnish personal information.  That data is captured and stored in various databases. When we apply for a drivers’ license the DMV captures our names, photographs, addresses and biographical details. In some cases, our fingerprints are also captured.

Successful vetting is dependent upon access to information that is reliable and verifiable. Therefore, it is relatively easy to vet people who live in the United States. As they go about their daily business, their information is regularly captured and updated – and can be checked against multiple government or commercial databases. It is also relatively easy to vet people who come to America from countries where businesses and government agencies are operated in a manner similar to the United States – as long as their governments are willing to share information with the United States.

Problems arise when attempting to vet people who come from countries where there are few reliable public records or countries that are unwilling to share information. A country may not have reliable records because its government does not have the resources to compile and store them. Sometimes, a country did have accurate records but lost them to war or natural disasters. Certain countries are unwilling to share information with the United States because their own laws prohibit such sharing. Other countries are unwilling to share because they do not have good diplomatic relations with the United States. Therefore, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) vets immigration applicants it may not have a clear picture of the applicant’s background.

Prior to its civil war, Syria did not share significant amounts of background information on its citizens with the United States. Even if Syria were now willing to share its information, the Syrian civil war has caused the destruction of many government records and very little reliable, verifiable information is currently being compiled either by government or non-governmental organizations operating within the country. As a result, Syrian passports, birth certificates, drivers’ licenses and other government documents cannot be adequately verified.

Although USCIS claims that all Syrian applicants for refugee status are being thoroughly vetted, this is simply untrue.  As noted above, successful vetting is dependent upon access to information that is reliable and verifiable. Because USCIS has limited access to information about the identity of Syrians seeking refugee status, it cannot verify the identities of these applicants. Therefore, it cannot conclusively determine whether an applicant was involved in activities that threaten the safety and security of the United States like terrorism, weapons smuggling or espionage.

Hiding behind jargon connected with the background check process will not conceal the shortcomings of that process. The American public has a right to expect that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will not admit refugees, and other seekers of immigration benefits, to the United States until it is reasonably certain that they pose no threat to those currently residing here. Failing to deny admission to those who have not, or cannot, be completely and thoroughly vetted constitutes a complete abdication of DHS’s responsibilities to secure the borders of the United States and ensure the safety of the American people.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.


  1. avatar

    Let’s see now. U.S. government employee calls office of corrupt government abroad. Employee there: “Good afternoon. Office of the Tyrant.” U.S. employee: “What info. do you have on Mr. So-and-so?” Employee there: “None.”

  2. avatar


    Another PC phrase we can use against the open border “numb-skulls”.

    “Undocumented Immigrants”, means they’re “undocumented”…..so you mentally challenged open border pundits; tell me with a clear common sense argument why that also means they’re countable…..soooooo…..where did the 11 million IA figure get dreamed up by? The tooth fairy?

    • avatar

      I was reading that Mexicans say they felt “humiliated” by Trump’s visit to their country. Who cares? That’s like being resented by your brother in law who is sleeping on your couch and eating your food. Mexicans should be humiliated by the fact that a quarter of their population is in this country and American taxpayers are giving them jobs, and education, medical care and food stamps for their children. Something the self righteous Mexicans are not supplying for their own people.

      They should also be humiliated by the fact that the cartels rule the country and the few honest politicians and journalists who oppose them end up dead. {Something the Mexican born journalist Jorge Ramos doesn’t address while he sits here under the protection of this country.} We have a huge heroin epidemic in this country from Mexican drugs, and we have people coming over the border with communicable diseases and if we need a wall/fence to stop it, that’s our business.

      Let Vicente Fox huff and puff all he wants. Trump makes questionable statements sometimes, but the only other option is Hillary who will continue to let Mexico use this country as their doormat and she will have the power to appoint probably three Supreme Court justices and many more to lower courts, and we know she’s going to appoint people who will do their best to block enforcement of our immigration laws.

      • avatar

        The ungrateful demanding brother-in-law-on-the-couch analogy is very much the way I see it. You say who cares? Unfortunately, millions of Americans, with misguided compassion care. They really buy into the blame-America-first mentality and see immigrants and third-world people as victims of “hateful” Americans.

  3. avatar

    Barack himself (the unqualified incompetent he is), like his likewise and useless administration, WILL have more blood on their hands due this utter ignorance.

  4. avatar

    So our government, in the name of preventing more terrorist attacks from occurring in the US, fights endless wars in the Middle East that cost trillions in debt, cost thousands of lives, and sow chaos and misery across the region. Then our government turns around and brings into the country refugees from these war zones, where terrorists proliferate that want to kill Americans, even though it knows the refugees cannot be adequately screened.

    This is leading our country towards bankruptcy, and putting the lives of Americans at risk. Will this country ever rid itself of the elites leading our country down this path towards such an unhappy future?