Fact Sheet: Syrian Refugee Resettlement

In the wake of the November 13 attacks on Paris, there is heightened concern that terrorists connected with ISIS will use the mass movement of refugees and economic migrants in the world to gain access to the United States. The United States currently maintains the most generous refugee program in the world. Typically, the State Department sets a goal of admitting half of the total refugees certified for placement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2013, the United States took 67 percent of all refugees.

The president is currently recommending expanding this already-generous program by increasing admissions of Syrian refugees from 1,500 to 10,000, with a total increase of 45,000 worldwide refugees over the next two years. Given the insufficient screening measures currently in place, conservatives should oppose funding for the administration’s increase in the number of refugees until Congress can pass legislation that guarantees an appropriate congressional role in ensuring stronger screening procedures.

Refugees and Asylees: According to U.S. immigration law, a refugee is a person who is 1) of special humanitarian concern to the United States, 2) fears persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, 3) has not firmly resettled in another country, and 4) is admissible to the United States. A further distinction must be drawn between asylees, who are already in the country in which they are seeking asylum, and refugees, who apply for permanent resettlement from a temporary resettlement location.

Asylum cases are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and there is no cap on the number of asylees that can be admitted to the United States. Refugees are usually out of the country from which they are fleeing, and are temporarily resettled in a short-term refugee camp (such as those in Jordan). This distinction ensures that those who need help the most are able to receive it.

The U.S. is already the number one country of resettlement for refugees in the world, resettling 66,200 of 98,400 total refugees in 2013. Before the beginning of each fiscal year, the President establishes an overall refugee admissions ceiling along with regional allocations. Once settled, refugees and asylees are given expedited access to legal permanent residency (LPR) and are put on a fast track to citizenship (which they can seek after four years as a LPR).

Difficult Vetting Procedures: It is extremely difficult to vet refugees from war-torn areas where there has been a complete breakdown of governmental control and authority. It is even harder in Arabic-speaking regions of the world, because of linguistic and cultural differences. Problems often begin with name identification, which is necessary to establish past history and determine whether members have been imprisoned or affiliated with any insurgency. These difficulties are compounded by how guarded Middle Eastern refugees are concerning motivations, which even the best regional experts have difficulty detecting. There is a history of failed assessments of Middle Eastern refugees, sometimes with grave consequences.

Additionally, many migrants currently entering Europe lack a legitimate claim for asylum. Many are economic migrants, seeking a better life for themselves and their families, but are not in danger of persecution. Many immigrants from poor, but otherwise stable countries, are currently claiming to be fleeing Syria, with a black market in Syrian passports booming. Given a systematic lack of documentation, distinguishing legitimate refuge-seeking from fraud can be difficult.

Due to this lack of documentation and inability to conduct name identification, FBI Director James Comey noted that the bureau does not currently have the ability to conduct thorough background checks on all refugee applicants. In his testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, he stated “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 there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them.”

Furthermore, according to Steven Bucci and David Inserra of The Heritage Foundation, there is precedent for screening and background checks to give way to political imperatives in the processing of refugees. According to their backgrounder published in October 2015, “when the Administration implemented its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, it was not prepared for the workload and moved to a ‘lean and lite’ system of background checks, where cases were quickly approved even when lacking information or documents.”

Radicalization: In addition to the threat of radicals slipping through gaps in the system, there is also a threat of radicalization once refugees are present in the United States. The United States is already struggling to prevent the radicalization of current residents by ISIS propaganda, with Minnesota having launched anti-radicalization programs in response to a large number of Somali refugees joining ISIS. The Boston Marathon bombing was perpetrated by asylees who radicalized while present in the United States. According to a November 2014 report by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 13% of Syrian refugees have a view ISIS that is at least “positive to some extent,” with 4% having a “positive” view. Given ISIS’s history of effective propagandizing via social media, it is likely that they will be able to capitalize on some of these predilections.

Call to Action: When crafting refugee policy, the United States must ensure that humanitarianism is balanced by a prudent concern for national security. Congress is currently debating Rep. Michael McCaul’s (R-TX) American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which contains significant deficiencies. Though it sets up a more stringent vetting system for Syrian refugees, it provides no leverage for Congress to weigh in and only requires that the vetting process be “certified” by the president’s appointees before allowing refugees to continue.  Congress should push for a thorough and transparent vetting process, and should deny funding to the president’s program until such a process is established. The December 11th appropriations deadline provides an opportunity for Congress to use a legislative rider defunding the president’s expansion, after which Congress may work with security experts to pass legislation establishing a screening process and mechanism for lawmakers to affirm the administration is implementing the new process correctly.

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