Critics of President Obama’s move to resettle up to 100,000 refugees from Syria and other war-torn Arab countries are pushing back, questioning whether the administration will — or even can — identify possible terrorists from among the migrants set to flood in.
In recent days, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security has introduced legislation requiring congressional approval of Obama’s plan to allow more Syrian refugees into the country, and an Alabama congressman has pressed the State Department for more detailed information about how it will screen for potential terrorists.
In a letter to the Department of State, Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., noted his district has the state’s only refugee reprocessing center, and demanded to know what will be done to weed out the bad guys.
“I would like to know what precautions are being made to ensure these refugees are not affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or other terrorist organizations,” he wrote. “I have legitimate concerns about the safety and security of my constituents in Southwest Alabama and people across the United States.”
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, said it is “virtually impossible to do the kinds of background checks we need to do” on large numbers for people coming from a failed state in the midst of a civil war.
“There is no way that we can independently verify anyone’s identity … These are very legitimate concerns.”
“We should be very concerned,” he said. “There is no way that we can independently verify anyone’s identity … These are very legitimate concerns.”
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday raised the annual cap on refugee resettlements from 70,000 to 85,000 and to 100,000 in 2017.
In an interview, Byrne told LifeZette that he is not convinced the normal vetting process is adequate to weed out all potential terrorists. He said the Obama administration has not offered specific safeguards that it intends to adopt.
“This is obviously a dangerous part of the world. We know terrorists would like to embed themselves in our society. This is a perfect opportunity for them to do it,” he said. “There is a huge volume of them. It’s going to be very difficult to ensure that none of them are terrorists.”
National Intelligence Director James Clapper has said, “We don’t obviously put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees.”
Supporters of Obama’s move argue the United States has decades of experience resettling refugees and already tightened screening mechanisms after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The short answer is that the issue is overblown,” Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate for Refugees International, told Al Jazeera America earlier this month. “The detailed answer is that the U.S. has been resettling refugees for over 50 years now, and ever since 9/11, there’s been an even more rigorous vetting process. It is slow and thorough, and, frankly, for the refugees, it can be quite painful.”
But the public shares skeptics’ concerns.
A Rasmussen Reports national survey released Tuesday showed that 49 percent of likely voters want the government to allow no refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Another 20 percent of those surveyed only support Obama’s initial call for 10,000 additional refugees, while 22 agree with allowing more than that. Just 7 percent support resettling 100,000 or more.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, has introduced legislation requiring approval by both the House and Senate before any additional refugees are admitted into the United States. The bill also would allow Congress to block any inadequate resettlement plan put forward by the president, and require the president to prioritize the resettlement of religious minorities — that is, Christians — from Iraq and Syria.
Normal refugee screening procedures are “absolutely inadequate” to deal with the Syrian crisis.
The Department of Homeland Security would be required to provide new security assurances, and the Government Accountability Office would be empowered to review existing gaps in the screening process.
Byrne, the Alabama congressman, said he suspects other representatives have sent similar inquiries to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
He said normal refugee screening procedures are “absolutely inadequate” to deal with the Syrian crisis. He pointed to the Boston Marathon bombers, whose family came to the United States from Chechnya after the country granted asylum.
“We’re not in control of our own immigration system in our hemisphere,” he said.
Mehlman acknowledged that there are other, potentially easier ways for terrorists to get into the United States. But entering as refugees offers a chance to gain permanent residency. And even though the majority of refugees pose no security risk, he said, it only takes a handful of lapses.
“We discovered on 9/11 that 19 people can do a lot of harm,” he said.