The Obama administration’s Syrian refugee resettlement operation is likely a dead program walking, at least in its current form — but the Syrians the president has and will continue to get in before Jan. 20 could pose long-term security issues.
That is because more than a year after the United States began resettling Syrian refugees by the thousands, the screening procedures are still woefully inadequate, according to a former government security official.
Louis “Don” Crocetti Jr., who was the chief of the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services until his 2011 retirement, told LifeZette that the agency now reviews the social media activity of Syrian refugees only on a limited basis. A policy prohibiting such reviews came under fire after revelations that San Bernardino, California, terrorist Tashfeen Malik had posted jihadist and anti-American sentiments on social media prior to getting admitted on a “fiancée visa.”
“It’s extremely limited. It’s only for Syrian refugees. They’re not finding it very helpful.”
Crocetti, who warned of the risks of taking Syrian refugees after President Obama announced the program, said a supervisor must review each refugee application. Social media background checks are performed in certain cases deemed high-risk.
“It’s extremely limited. It’s only for Syrian refugees,” he said, adding that a source within the agency tells him that the policy is vague and limited, and lacks advanced analytics. “They’re not finding it very helpful.”
Obama determined last year the United States needed to do its part to alleviate a humanitarian crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war. He pressed ahead with a plan to admit 10,000 refugees despite strong opposition from Congress and testimony from senior members of his own administration that they could not guarantee that the arrivals posed no risk to Americans. The Islamic State terrorism group has stated that it intends to infiltrate refugee flows.
So far, 14,349 refugees have gone through screening by the United Nations and the federal government and have been relocated to communities throughout the United States.
Crocetti said the main problem today is the same as when the program began: the United States lacks access to records and databases in Syria that might help U.S. officials flag risky applicants.
“It’s not there,” he said. “We had all that with the Iraqi refugees.”
Hillary Clinton had pledged during the presidential campaign to increase America’s annual intake of Syrians to 65,000. President-Elect Donald Trump, who at one point promised to halt all Muslims from entering the county on a temporary basis, later settled on a policy of “extreme vetting.”
Given the program’s impending conclusion, would Obama be tempted to try to speed up the review process to admit as many refugees as possible before he leaves office? Unlikely, according to experts.
“I think they have already speeded it up as much as they can,” said Nayla Rush, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. “If they have people already processed, they could bring them. But they cannot just create something that’s not there … What’s the point? Another month? Two?”
Crocetti agreed, noting that the refugee review process takes one or two years.
“I seriously doubt they would have the capacity to process 170 — 180,000 before Donald Trump is sworn in,” he said.
Exactly how Trump will proceed with his plan is not clear. One option is to shut down the Syrian refugee program.
“I would expect that office would be closed,” said Daniel Pipes, founder of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. “That would certainly be in keeping with what he said.”
Rush said it is possible Trump could merely order a pause in the program while he conducts a top-to-bottom review.
“My guess — and it’s just a guess — he might not shut it down completely,” she said. “But he won’t do it in the way it’s been done before.”
Noting the cordial tone struck by both Trump and Obama during their joint appearance before the media at the White House on Thursday, Crocetti suggested that the president slow down in his waning months.
“I would think that the outgoing president would respect the incoming president’s policy and perhaps even support a pause,” he said.
Crocetti said one way forward in the Trump administration might be to resettle the lowest-risk refugees, such as widows, children and the elderly.
“That would far exceed our capacity, anyway,” he said.
Rush said the United States should reform the program to ensure that refugees brought to the United States are compatible with Western norms.
“Even the pope said we want people who share the values of the country,” she said.
Rush said she is not aware of any serious incidents involving refugees who have come from Syria in the last year. But she added they likely are struggling to finds jobs and adapt to their new home. Research indicates that Middle Eastern refugees lag economically for years after arriving and use government assistance programs at high rates.
“You can’t just go there and wave a magic wand and learn English and everything is fine,” Rush said. “This is going to be a struggle, particularly for the kids.”