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White House Says Refugee Admissions Can Resume, With New Security Vetting

The Trump administration has reopened the door to refugees seeking admission to the U.S. – but with broad new security procedures that raise fresh concerns for the groups that help them resettle here.

Most refugee admissions had been suspended for the last four months as the Trump administration came up with new security measures. Now the White House has issued an executive erder allowing the program to resume, with those measures in place.

"The federal government has implemented enhancements that have raised the bar for vetting and screening procedures," said Jonathan Hoffman, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, during a conference call with reporters.

Starting Wednesday, all refugees will face more extensive background checks. And the administration is conducting an extra 90-day review of vetting procedures for refugees from 11 countries, most of them in the Middle East and Africa, because the administration says they pose a higher risk to national security.

Under the new standards, all refugees will have to submit their previous phone numbers, email addresses and physical addresses for the past 10 years, rather than the current standard of five years; and they'll be asked to provide contact information for family members worldwide, not just those living in the U.S.

The Trump administration argues the new vetting procedures are necessary to keep the country safe. But groups that help resettle refugees in the U.S. are skeptical.

"Refugees are already the most vetted people coming to this country," said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, one of nine major groups that work to resettle refugees in the U.S. "These new requirements will not make us safer. What they will do is create additional, unnecessary burdens for individuals who have been forced to flee for their lives and are searching for safety."

Resettlement groups worry that the Trump administration is trying to shrink the refugee program at a time of growing humanitarian needs around the world. Last month, the White House capped the number of refugees for the current year at 45,000 – a historically low number, and less than half of the cap in the last year of the Obama administration.

Refugee advocates say the new security guidelines could make it difficult for the U.S. to hit even that lower target. They say many refugees may have to reapply for security clearance under the new guidelines, a process that could take years.

The Trump administration also ordered an additional in-depth review of vetting procedures for refugees from 11 countries, most of them in the Middle East and Africa, that the administration says pose a higher risk to national security.

Refugees from those 11 countries – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Republic of South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, plus some Palestinians – are already subject to heightened scrutiny screening. On the conference call with reporters, administration officials were repeatedly asked about what prompted the additional review, but declined to give any specifics.

The new security guidelines come after months of legal wrangling over the Trump administration's earlier ban on refugees and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. Opponents said those executive orders amounted to an unconstitutional Muslim ban, like the one President Trump advocated on the campaign trail.

They fought the travel ban all the way to the Supreme Court. But the justices decided the case was moot when the ban expired.

The administration replaced those rules with a new set of restrictions on visitors and immigrants from eight countries, including North Korea and Venezuela. Federal courts have also put those rules on hold as they consider legal challenges.

The White House's new executive order on refugees could be headed for a similar legal battle.

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.