The United States runs the names of potential refugees through terrorism and law enforcement databases and conducts health screenings — but makes no effort to learn whether they harbor extremist views, an administration official acknowledged Wednesday.
Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, made the admission during testimony at a Senate hearing on President Obama’s Syrian refugee program.
“Do you make any inquiry about practices that we reject in the United States, like female genital mutilation?”
Republicans on the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and The National Interest have expressed concerns that Obama’s decision to admit more than 10,000 Syrian refugees over the past 12 months and his plan to increase that number in the coming 12 months is reckless in light of the threat posed by Islamic extremism.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who chairs the subcommittee, grilled Henshaw about the procedures for screening refugee applicants. “Do you make any inquiry about practices that we reject in the United States, like female genital mutilation?” he asked. “Do you say, ‘Do you believe in that and when you come to the United States will you comply with the laws of the United States on that kind of question?'”
Henshaw said U.S. officials explain American law and customs but do not inquire about refugees’ political beliefs.
“On all questions, we make it clear to refugees that we’re a nation of laws and that they need to comply with our laws,” he said.
Sessions pointed to a Justice Department report indicating that the United States last year experienced 27 “honor killings,” a practice that wins widespread approval in some Muslim-dominated countries that practice Sharia law.
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Henshaw drew a distinction between Muslim refugees and other Muslim immigrants.
“I’m not sure those honor killings took place among the resettled refugee community in the United States,” he said.
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Henshaw said the government operates a cultural orientation program and insisted that refugees make a smooth transition to Americanism.
“Senator, I see no evidence to show that refugee communities are bringing these values into the United States,” he said. “I see that they’re becoming good American citizens, members of the military, members of our police … people that have U.S.-American values.”
Sessions noted that the perpetrators of Muslim honor killings come from the same cultural backgrounds as refugees. He also noted that 40 refugees have been charged with terrorism-related crimes in the United States.
“So you’re not perfect in your admission, I have to admit,” Sessions said.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has proposed adding an ideological component to America’s screening procedures to try to weed out people who would be hostile to American values. It is an idea first floated by Trump adviser and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in July.
There is strong evidence that many Muslims hold views that clash with Western norms. In the U.K., police recorded more than 11,000 “honor” crimes between 2010 and 2014. A British think tank counted 18 honor killings in that country from 2010 to 2014.
A 2013 survey sponsored by Pew Research Center fond that 99 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan and 91 percent of Iraqi Muslims favored making Sharia law the official law of their countries. A 2011 Pew survey found that 40 percent of Pakistanis believed it is often or sometimes justified to kill a woman engaged in premarital sex or adultery in order to protect the family’s honor.
Aside from security questions, Sessions probed Henshaw about whether the education and language skills of refugees make them a good fit for the United States. Henshaw acknowledged that the government’s decisions to grant refugee applications “are based [exclusively] on their vulnerabilities.”
But he added, “I have to say, we receive many refugees with a high level of education, particularly from the Middle East.”
The government’s own statistics suggest that is an exaggeration, however. According to the latest report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, refugees from the Middle East in 2014 — the most recent year available — had an average of 10.9 years of education before entering the United States. That was above average for refugees, as was the 20 percent who had a college degree.
But it was still below the education level of Americans, and it did not translate into job success. Only 37.1 percent of Middle East refugees were working, compared with the overall refugee rate of 48.5 percent.