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BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

How Do Refugees Get Vetted?

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

According to the United Nations, there is currently an unprecedented number of displaced people in the world; almost 34,000 people a day flee their homes to escape conflict and persecution, per the UN's 2015 statistics. Out of the estimated 21.3 million refugees in the world, only a small portion resettle in the United States. Since the federal refugee program was created in 1980, 3 million refugees have entered the U.S., with 85,000 entering between October 2015 and September 2016.

The Refugee Act of 1980 established a resettlement program and federal standards for screening and admitting refugees. Just how does that vetting work?

For most refugees trying to enter the United States, the process takes between 18 and 24 months and involves referrals from the United Nations, security checks and interviews with several national security agencies in the U.S., fingerprinting, and a health screening. According to the State Department, “No traveler to the United States is subject to more rigorous security screening than the refugees the U.S. Government considers for admission.”

First, applicants have to register as refugees with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which works in 128 countries and runs refugee camps in places like Turkey, Jordan, Thailand and Tanzania. Being a refugee means you’ve fled your home country and are afraid to return based on fear of persecution related to your race, religion, nationality, social group (like if you’re LGBT), or political views. Ideally, you have documents that confirm your story, like letters or written testimony from friends or relatives who know your situation. Sometimes an NGO or the U.S. consulate can refer you to the UNHCR, but that’s rare.

UNHCR vets refugees for eligibility with an eye toward how vulnerable their situation is—like if they’re an orphan, a victim of torture, or if they have serious medical needs [PDF]. They also are looking to weed out people who aren’t eligible as refugees, such as war criminals. Only around 1 percent of the refugee population around the world is deemed a “strong candidate” for resettlement in another country like the U.S. or Canada. While you can put down a preference, refugees ultimately don't get to decide where they are resettled, though having family ties or speaking a particular country’s language can help.

Once the UNHCR determines that a refugee is eligible and collects their documentation and biographical info, they get forwarded on to one of nine Resettlement Support Centers that the State Department contracts with for such services. The center interviews them and puts them into a database of worldwide refugees, checks their information, and then sends it on to the other agencies that will conduct background checks. The National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State all do background checks and screen refugees for threats of terrorism and any previous criminal history. The U.S. intelligence community also reviews applicants.

Then, all that information goes to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. Those agencies conduct more interviews (in the refugee's host country) and check for inconsistencies in the refugee's story. After the Department of Homeland Security decides you are not a national security threat, you get fingerprinted. Your fingerprints are run through FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense databases to further screen for threats.

As a Syrian refugee currently living in the United States recently wrote in Politico:

"Over 15 months I was interviewed five times—in person, over the phone, by the United Nations and by the United States. They asked me about my family, my politics, my hobbies, my childhood, my opinions of the U.S., and even my love life. No less than four U.S. government agencies had the opportunity to screen me. By the time I received my offer to live in the United States, the U.S. officials in charge of my case file knew me better than my family and friends do."

After that, if the U.S. government believes a refugee is eligible for resettlement in America, they still have to undergo a medical check to make sure they won’t be a threat to public health once they arrive, plus take a class to learn about American culture and customs.

Once a refugee is finally cleared, they are assigned to a resettlement destination chosen by the resettlement organizations and the State Department. Officials from the nine resettlement agencies meet once a week to go over the applications and place refugees around the U.S.

Even once they go through all that, there’s still one last step in the vetting: Like any other international traveler, refugees have to go through customs and get screened by TSA.

Sound complicated? It is. To help you better wrap your mind around the steps, the Obama administration visualized this process in an infographic on the White House website:

Once a refugee makes it through customs, representatives from domestic resettlement agencies meet them at the airport to help them settle into their new communities. But the process still isn't entirely over. Finally, if they make it through all that, they still have to apply for a green card a year after resettlement.

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Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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