– Executive Summary –

Historically, the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has accepted more refugees than any other country in the world. As the United States continues to resettle this population as a part of its humanitarian mission, security vetting of it has evolved. However, the vetting of this population proves problematic as refugees are often without identity documents. This leaves United States government officials to accept the identity provided by the refugee without the ability to verify it. Despite the lack of government-issued identification, refugees are often in possession of mobile phones, a device that has been rapidly adopted throughout the developing world. Additionally, these devices hold significant amounts of data about their users, which lends them as a form of identification for refugees. If the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program were to utilize a refugee’s mobile phone as proof of identity, it would assist the vetting process.

To determine the best policy to implement in a mobile phone screening program within USRAP, three policy alternatives were analyzed. To

  1. Maintain the status quo of applicants’ mobile phones not being screened.
  2. Implement mandatory screening of all applicants’ mobile phones.
  3. Administer a threat-based targeted approach where only the phones of those applicants whose cases have fraud and/or national security indicators be screened.

These alternatives were analyzed with the following evaluative criteria: (1) efficiency, (2) risk to national security, and (3) ethical consideration: privacy of the refugee. The efficiency of each alternative was gauged based on the cost to implement and maintain a mobile phone screening program while evaluating the reduction in time to vet the refugee. The ability to minimize the risk to national security posed by each alternative was equally important, as each policy had varying likelihoods of detecting a nefarious actor. The final criteria, the privacy of the refugee, was selected because refugees are one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. As such, their need for privacy must be recognized in the formulation of a policy. As a result, each of the alternatives was rated based on its ability to minimize the arbitrariness of the screening process. It was determined that a threat-based targeted approach was the best policy alternative as it optimized efficiency, minimized risk to national security, and minimized the arbitrariness of determining which subsets of the refugee populations mobile phones should be screened.

In order for the policy to be adopted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), it would require an interagency forum. This forum would involve USCIS and members of both the law enforcement and intelligence community. A key stakeholder in the initiative would be U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Vetting Center. Following the adoption of the program, the director of USCIS would consult with the designated Department of Homeland Security official in accordance with the Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration.[1] This senior-level employee, designated by the Department of Homeland Security, will be responsible for “coordinating the review and any revision of policies and procedures regarding the vetting and adjudications of USRAP refugee applicants.”[2] Successful implementation of the policy would require several lines of effort to include: (1) communication, (2) privacy, and (3) training. The United States Refugee Affairs Division would employ a communication campaign to convey the purpose and benefits of a mobile phone vetting program and how the refugee’s privacy is safeguarded. A privacy impact assessment (PIA) would be conducted regarding the collection and retention of metadata collected from the refugee’s mobile phone. Finally, USCIS would need to recruit and maintain a cadre of mobile phone forensic professionals to manage the program. The outcome of a mobile phone forensic screening program would be determined based on its ability to decrease security screening times while minimizing the risk to national security and arbitrary mobile phone screenings of refugees.


[1] Joseph Biden, Executive Order 14013, “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration.” Code of Federal Regulations, title 3 (2021 comp.): 8841.

[2] Biden, 8841.

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