Experts see little threat with Syrian refugees
United States uses exhaustive background checks to vet refugees, accepts relatively few
More than half of the governors across the country — all but one Republican — have vowed to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees within their borders, arguing that the risk of terrorism is too high to provide safe haven to those displaced by Syria’s civil war.
In a letter to President Obama, Texas Governor Greg Abbot said, “I write to inform you that the State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris.”
“Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” he continued. “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”
Twenty-seven Republican governors also signed a joint letter calling on the White House to halt its plans to resettle Syrian refugees.
As governors rush to close their doors to Syrian refugees, many experts are now pointing out the problems with this kind of posturing.
“They have no authority to actually make that decision,” said Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director for the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The whole process is federal.”
As he explained, funding for refugee resettlement comes from the federal government, and is funneled through the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants.
While governors have no say in where refugees relocate, Sekhavat said that they do have the power to “make life quite difficult for the new folks” by denying funding to other agencies that provide services, such as English classes.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker initially joined in this chorus of opposition, saying, “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria,” but later walked back his comments and refused to sign on to the GOP letter to President Obama. “Massachusetts has a role in welcoming refugees into the commonwealth,” he said through a spokeswoman.
In the past four years, only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been accepted into the United States, but the Obama administration announced in September that 10,000 Syrians would be permitted entry next year.
Sekhavat also points out that the screening process for refugees coming to the United States is far more robust than the opponents of Syrian refugee resettlement are making it out to be.
According to the White House, refugee applicants are first interviewed by an international agency such as the UN High Commission on Refugees, which collects their biodata and biometrics — including iris scans for populations from the Middle East.
Those who pass this initial test — less than one percent of the global refugee population — move on to enhanced interagency security checks performed by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The applicant’s fingerprints are then run through USCIS, FBI, DHS and DOD databases.
If an applicant makes it through all of these security checks, plus a medical test and cultural orientation classes, then he or she may enter the country after additional screenings by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.
The entire process, according to Sekhavat, takes about two years.
Massachusetts has resettled 1,759 refugees so far this year, only 85 of which were from Syria, according to the Office for Refugees and Immigrants.
“I don’t know how much you could really strengthen it,” Sekhavat said of the screening process. “You could expand it and make it a lot harder on these people, and keep them in refugee camps longer, keep them suffering longer. But to say that we’re going to add valid layers of security on top of this would be getting to the point where it’s just repetitive.”
“One of the advantages in the United States is that we get to handpick who we want as refugees,” he went on. “Even if there’s the slightest suspicion that someone might be a terrorist, we’re not going to take them. There are plenty of folks who we can show have no terrorist ties that we would be able to take in.”
Still, House Republicans passed a bill in November establishing new barriers to entry for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, including requirements that heads of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence personally sign off on each refugee entering the country.
This backlash against Syrian refugees has created a dangerous climate of fear, said Cristina Aguilera, organizing director for the MIRA Coalition.
“When a governor of a state comes out saying we don’t want any refugees around here, it creates a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment that resonates with other people’s fears, and they react,” she said.
Nadia Alawa, founder and president of the New Hampshire-based aid organization NuDay Syria, agreed. “The issue of refugees has become an easy political scapegoat for both getting easy attention and for failed international politics,” she said. “Refugees are escaping the very terrorists that are behind the horrible attacks in Paris and other places.”
“Historically there is no proof that any refugee has carried out terror attacks,” she went on, “and it is cheap rhetoric to claim otherwise or to throw out hateful accusations that not only are affecting thousands and thousands of refugees directly, but also millions of American Muslim citizens.”
While Aguilera said she hasn’t heard of any local backlash against Syrian refugees, Sekhavat pointed out that the impact of anti-refugee rhetoric goes much deeper.
“Even if there’s not any noticeable backlash, it’s important to keep in mind that these are people who have been the victims of persecution already,” he said. “For them to hear this kind of language attacking them, after they’ve already been victimized, has a profound impact on their psyche and where they feel their place is in the receiving community.”