President Trump does not recognize any "inherent obligation" to accept refugees referred to the United States as part of an Obama-era deal with Australia, according to a State Department official who emphasized the need for "strict vetting" of the newcomers.
"There is no inherent obligation to take refugees unless they actually meet our strict standards," Matt Matthews, a deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for U.S. policy towards Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, told reporters Thursday.
The refugees were an early flashpoint in Trump's relationship with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as well as the fight over leaks of classified information that have plagued the administration. Trump and Turnbull clashed during their first phone call over whether the United States would honor an agreement struck between Turnbull and the Obama administration, and details of the conversation were leaked to the press before Trump's team ultimately agreed to stick with the plan.
"What the United States has undertaken to do is review applications submitted through the UN High Commission and go through our own very independent and very strict vetting process to determine whether or not referred potential refugees would meet our standard for admittance to the United States," Matthews said.
The refugees, who hail largely from Afghanistan and Iraq, traveled to Australia but were denied admittance to the country. The "offshore detention centers" have proven a national embarrassment for the Australian government, so the opportunity to refer them to the United States is a major political issue for Turnbull's team. That deal was struck two months after the Australians agreed to accept Central American refugees who are living in Costa Rica in U.S.-funded camps. "There is not, and there will be no people swap," a member of Turnbull's administration said in September.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is traveling to Australia and New Zealand next week. Tillerson plans to "discuss the full range of U.S-Australian cooperation on bilateral, regional, and global issues" and "reaffirm our strong ties and discuss coordination on shared strategic interests" with New Zealand, according to the State Department.
Matthews said that the "pre-screening" of the refugees is already underway. "I don't have a specific time-line," he said. "What I can tell you is that there will be no shortcuts in the process, they will go through a full vetting process, but these refugees have been vetted in depth in Australia and they're in a process of being vetted in depth now by [the Department of Homeland Security]."