The statements keep flooding in from presidential candidates, members of Congress, and state officials demanding the U.S. close its borders to Syrian refugees — even as some of the strictest security requirements in the world have kept them to a trickle, and despite a lack of evidence they pose a threat to the U.S.
In the wake of the deadliest attacks in Paris since World War II and reports by French prosecutors that one of the attackers was fingerprinted in Greece last month after arriving from Turkey with the flood of refugees, dozens of U.S. officials and Republican presidential candidates claim the behemoth U.S. national security apparatus doesn’t have sufficient checks on those fleeing Syria.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump suggested Tuesday night the government has “absolutely no choice” but to shutter mosques, following Ben Carson on Sunday who said, “To bring them here under these circumstances is a suspension of intellect.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the U.S. can’t take in more Syrians because “we can’t background check them.” “You can’t pick up the phone and call Syria.”
Rubio is a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, where he receives regular security briefings, and he has been positioning himself in the 2016 election as a more credible choice for commander in chief. The politics of fear may have grown in potency among American voters with the Islamic State’s threat to bring the terror in France on Friday night to Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. But the comments represent another danger: they’re either in denial of reality or ignorant of it.
“A lot of the questions we’re getting are from members who are just learning about our program for the first time, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there from the blogosphere,” a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a Tuesday call.
Not only are refugees the most scrutinized of any category of traveller to the U.S., they are subjected to one of the most extensive security clearance processes in the world for refugee applicants. The U.S. has only accepted 2,034 of 23,092 cases referred by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011 — a fraction of the 4 million Syrian refugees UNHCR has registered, and the some 12 million Syrians who have been displaced.
The administration has raised the U.S. cap on refugees from around the world, and President Obama has repeated his pledge to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has resettled 784,000 refugees from across the globe, according to The Atlantic — only three have been arrested for terrorism-related activities. Of the 2,174 of those refugees who are Syrian, “not a single one has been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds,” the White House said Wednesday evening, stating the president would veto a House bill intended to impede resettlement.
Abroad for the G20 meeting and stops in Asia, Obama repudiated the refugee rhetoric back home as he urged other countries toward a political resolution for Syria.
“We are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks,” he said in the Philippines. “These are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion.
“They’ve been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns. And it’s irresponsible. And it’s contrary to who we are. And it needs to stop, because the world is watching.”
French President François Hollande said Wednesday morning that over the next two years, the country will take 30,000 refugees, who will undergo vigorous security checks. “Some people say the tragic events of the last few days have sown doubts in their minds,” he said. “France will remain a country of freedom.”
How the U.S. Screens Syrian Refugees
UNHCR is the first clearinghouse, having referred all of the Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. as of last month. Senior resettlement officer Larry Yungk said the agency is weeding out roughly half the refugee seekers, because it doesn’t have the resources to answer questions amid the onslaught of Syrian refugees.
Senior administration officials said Tuesday the U.S. approval rate is a little over 50 percent. They expect it to edge up.
After referral for resettlement in the U.S., every Syrian applicant is interviewed in person by DHS and State Department officials. (DHS has conducted interviews of 7,014 Syrians since fiscal 2011.) Most interviews currently occur in Istanbul and Amman, Jordan, but the State Department is doubling the number of screening outposts available to refugees in the Middle East by opening new processing centers in Irbil, Iraq, and reopening in Lebanon.
Officials run biographic and biometric information, such as fingerprints, through multiple levels of law enforcement and terrorism databases shared by DHS, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Defense Department, and in some cases, it is cross-checked with foreign intelligence agencies.
The process takes some 18 to 24 months on average for a refugee to be cleared. In fact, 84 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last month demanding they “take immediate action” to address unnecessarily burdensome processes.
No Syrian refugee can travel to the U.S. without clearance.
Closing the Gaps
It’s not just presidential candidates who have raised alarms about the vetting process. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is up for reelection in 2016, told Defense One last month, “We are as thorough today as we probably need to be, and probably can be.” But on Monday, he said: “The Syrian refugee program should be suspended until the American people are satisfied that they know exactly who the president is admitting into the country.”
Citing classified briefings he’s received as a member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Tuesday on MSNBC, “There are no databases” to check. “What the President is telling us is not true,” he said. “We can’t vet the refugees.”
Intelligence and national security agency chiefs also have expressed concerns about gaps in intelligence on war-torn Syria, where the U.S. has little presence. About a year ago, USCIS also added a layer of extra screening for Syrians “to ensure potential gaps are covered,” DHS told Defense One. Despite these challenges, officials have never suggested they are incapable of vetting Syrian refugees.
In an October hearing, FBI Director James Comey noted the risks with people coming from Syria, but also touted the effectiveness of the security process. “There is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like that,” he said. “From the intelligence community perspective, I think we’ve developed an effective way to touch all of our databases and resources to figure out what we know about individuals … My concern there is that there are certain gaps I don’t want to talk about publicly in the data available to us.”
In a later hearing, Comey said, “We can only query against that which we have collected … So if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home but we are not going to — there will be nothing … because we have no record on that person.”
But Comey, Johnson, and NCTC Director Nicholas Rasmussen also said last month that security screening procedures for refugees have vastly improved in recent years after two resettled Iraqis were found to have handled IEDs that killed Americans in Iraq.
Iraqis and Syrians “tend to be a very, very heavily documented population,” a senior administration official said Tuesday. Additionally, authorities conducting interviews are “pretty sophisticated about what they should see and if it’s missing, why it’s missing…. If a barrel bomb fell on the house and documents were destroyed, that could be a credible reason for not having one’s documents.”
Last month, roughly two-dozen sources at the Capitol, the White House, the NSC, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, NCTC, the FBI, DHS, USCIS, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA could not or would not provide Defense One evidence that Syrians refugees might pose a threat. They funnelled queries to DHS, which said: “There is no particular trend that we have seen in the refugee population, nor has recent history shown – and open source reporting speaks to this — that with refugees who have entered [the U.S.] there has been a prevalence — a proclivity toward terror-related activities.”
DHS officials declined to comment whether that assessment remains accurate post-Paris, but directed Defense One to recent testimony by USCIS Director León Rodriguez. In the nearly five years since Syrians began leaving, Rodriguez said, U.S. officials have denied admission to about 30 individuals flagged in these databases, and put on hold or denied several hundred after interviews, due to inconsistencies.
“What we don’t want to do is to have these terrorists succeed in taking away the freedoms and liberties that we pride ourselves on…. And I know that there is a rush by some to say that borders should be closed, we should isolate ourselves,” he said. “But I don’t think what we want to do is to just hermetically seal our borders.”
‘We Can And Must Do Both’
Critics of the refugee backlash argue rhetoric plays directly into the Islamic State’s propaganda, as the terrorist group is encouraging Syrians to stay. The already 8 million displaced within Syria remain at great risk, and complicate the military operation against the Islamic State.
The definition of refugee under U.S. law is an individual who demonstrates “they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
So far, only 2 percent of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. are single males “of a fighting age,” according to officials. Half are children.
Despite the known demographics to date, the presidential candidates have pounced. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Sunday Syrian Muslims should be barred, claiming, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Rival former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the U.S. has a responsibility to help refugees, but should prioritize Christians. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called on newly-minted House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to resign if he didn’t block Syrians.
American religious leaders from Christians and Evangelicals to Jews and Muslims rejected what they called “scapegoating” of Syrian refugees. “Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees,” one Catholic Bishop said. “I call upon our public officials to work together to end the Syrian conflict peacefully.”
As of Tuesday night, some 25 governors had declared their states would shut their doors to Syrian refugees, including Democrat New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, demanded to know how many Syrian refugees had been resettled in his state (The answer: 14). Late Tuesday, the White House held a 90-minute call with 34 governors from both parties to explain refugee admissions and security screening. But it’s not up to the governors. By law, the federal government sets and administers refugee policy, and refugees, once admitted, are entitled to all of the same rights and privileges of any legal resident of the U.S., including freedom of movement.
Still, members of Congress are trying to use the federal purse strings to choke off funding for refugees, and not just from Syria. Republican candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would attempt to block refugees “from about 30 countries that have significant jihadist movements” using a tax on arms sales, and subject French to a waiting period. Yet laws screening for origin or religion could also prove discriminatory.
Ryan announced a task force Tuesday to look at the refugee crisis and ISIS fight. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry,” he said, calling for a “pause” on admissions, also backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. In an astoundingly quick turnaround for Congress, the House set up a vote Thursday on a bill to enhance background checks on refugees from Syria and Iraq. While some Democrats said they want stricter security requirements, a number promised unanimous opposition — including the ranking members of the House committees on Intelligence and Homeland Security, and subcommittee on immigration and border security.
Instead on Thursday, 47 Democrats joined the Republicans to pass the “American SAFE Act” by a veto-proof majority of 289 to 137. Democratic senators have vowed to block the bill, which critics say would stop the U.S.from taking in refugees entirely, and the White House said Wednesday night it would veto the measure.
Other leaders, including Democrats, had denounced the refugee backlash while also backing the “pause.” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., nominated as his successor, said, “a pause may be necessary” but that his party was waiting for a Senate-wide security briefing on Wednesday with officials from DHS, NCTC, FBI, and the departments of State and Defense. On Thursday after the briefing and House passage, he withdrew his support.
On Wednesday morning, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed the program accepting Syrian refugees should be paused, “to give our law enforcement and intelligence professionals sufficient time to ensure that there is a rigorous, comprehensive vetting process in place capable of protecting our national security.” But he also chastised fellow Republicans for their rhetoric. “I believe the overwhelming focus on the refugee program in recent days is misplaced. I especially encourage my fellow Republicans to recognize that refugees are not the problem – they are the symptom of the problem.”
Bush, too, seemed to walk his initial comments back and deflect to Obama, saying Tuesday, “The answer to this is not to ban people from coming. The answer is to lead, to resolve the problem in Syria.”
Democratic candidates have largely taken this tack of focusing on the cause of the crisis.
“Now is not the time for demagoguery and fear-mongering,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Monday night. “Now is the time for developing a serious and effective approach to destroy ISIS.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the first to call for the U.S. to let in 65,000, reiterated, “They are fleeing the same sort of carnage that was unleashed on the people of France.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated Saturday during the debate the U.S. should let in significantly more, “but only if we have as careful a screening and vetting process as we can imagine, whatever resources it takes.”
Current and former lawmakers and officials know it’s an impossible demand to reduce risk to zero.
USCIS last year performed security checks for a total 67,000 refugee applicants from around the world with a budget of $3 billion, according to NextGov, and Obama has requested $1 billion more. While lawmakers pledge to block funding, officials say they don’t need more money to vet and resettle 10,000 refugees this year.
Senior administration officials emphasize more than 180 American cities and towns have welcomed refugees, and the U.S. prioritizes the most vulnerable cases. The administration remains “steadfastly committed” to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees, DHS told Defense One, only after concluding it’s “consistent with our national security.”
In the Philippines, Obama urged the American public to respond to the Paris attacks with compassion, not fear.
“Because you have this vibrant, modern, open, diverse, tolerant Western city that reminds us of home, that reminds us of our own cafes and our own parks and our own stadiums, I understand why the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened there,” he said. “And it is important for us to be reminded…we can’t be complacent or lulled into thinking somehow that we are immune from these kinds of attacks.”
“But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn’t admit three-year-old orphans—that’s political posturing,” he said. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL.”
He apologized to Philippines President Benigno Aquino for his lengthy response.
“No problem,” Aquino responded. “Very educational, Mr. President.”
This story has been updated.