Post-Debate Fact Checks Call Out Republican Candidates For False Claims On Immigration And Refugees

Media fact checks of statements made by Republican presidential candidates during the fifth GOP primary debate debunked multiple false claims from the candidates about immigration and the vetting process for Syrian refugees.

Fact Checks Debunk Ted Cruz's Claim That The FBI Cannot Vet Syrian Refugees

CNN: “It's Incorrect To Imply That The FBI Said That It Can't Vet Syrian Refugees.” A CNN fact check rated Ted Cruz's claim that “the head of the FBI has told Congress they cannot vet [Syrian] refugees” as “false,” noting that “it's incorrect to imply that the FBI said that it can't vet Syrian refugees.” The fact check explained the refugee vetting process, noting that refugees “undergo several screenings ... which involve multiple federal intelligence and security agencies” and that “Syrian refugees in particular go through additional screening” :

As for the FBI's inability to vet Syrian refugees: In October, FBI Director James Comey told Congress that Syrian refugees will be more difficult to check than those from many other countries, especially because U.S. hasn't been regularly exchanging information with Syria. “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,” Comey said at the hearing.

However, it's incorrect to imply that the FBI said that it can't vet Syrian refugees. Refugees that come to the U.S. undergo several screenings, such as biographic checks and in-person interviews, which involve multiple federal intelligence and security agencies. Syrian refugees in particular go through additional screening, called the Syria Enhanced Review process. That process uses biographical information collected from the U.N. refugee agency to determine whether an applicant needs to go through a fraud or national security unit, which then conducts individualized research on each applicant's story and records. Syrian refugee applications can take much longer to process than the average 18 to 24 months. Mark Toner, a deputy State Department spokesperson, recently called the refugee vetting process, “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States.”

Cruz said “tens of thousands” of Syrian refugees will come to this country, but it's unclear how much more than 10,000 refugees the U.S. plans to accept. The FBI has admitted that there are serious challenges in screening Syrian refugees that come to the U.S., but refugees are vetted across multiple agencies in a process that is being constantly refined, according to senior State department officials.

Verdict: False [CNN, 12/16/15]

FactCheck.org: FBI Director “Comey Didn't Say That The U.S. Intelligence Community 'Cannot Vet Those Refugees.'” FactCheck.org accused Cruz of “twist[ing] [the] FBI director's words” and debunked Cruz's erroneous claim. The fact check clarified that Comey told Congress he could not offer an "'absolute assurance that there's no risk'" but that he “didn't say that the U.S. intelligence community 'cannot vet those refugees.'” FactCheck.org concluded that “the refugee review process is lengthy and involves multiple federal agencies” :

Cruz Twists FBI Director's Words

In discussing his legislation to ban the U.S. from accepting Syrian refugees for three years, Cruz claimed that FBI Director James Comey told Congress “they cannot vet those refugees.” That's not exactly what Comey said. He said he could not give an “absolute assurance that there's no risk” associated with admitting Syrian refugees.

At an Oct. 22 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Raul Labrador asked Comey about “security gaps” in vetting Syrian refugees (at 1:47:28 into the hearing). Comey recalled that some “serious actors” from Iraq were admitted to the U.S. as refugees during the Iraq War, but he said the intelligence community “has gotten much better” since then about working together to review the available records.

“We learned some good lessons from the less than excellent screening of Iraqi refugees eight years ago,” he said.

But, he acknowledged, there are unique challenges with Syrian refugees. The U.S. military controlled Iraq and as a result the U.S. had a rich data set of fingerprints, iris scans and other records of Iraqi citizens. That's not the case in Syria.

“The challenge we face with Syria is that we don't have that richest set of data, so even though we have gotten better, in querying what [records] we have we certainly will have less,” Comey said.

Comey disagreed with Labrador's characterization of the database for Syrians as “obsolete.” Comey said it is a “less robust database, dramatically” than what was available from Iraq, but the intelligence community is committed to mitigating the risk by “querying well” the records that do exist and seeking additional sources of information.

“I can't sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there's no risk associated with this,” Comey said.

Cruz has a point that the FBI director expressed concerns about how to effectively vet Syrian refugees when little or no records are available, but Comey didn't say that the U.S. intelligence community “cannot vet those refugees.”

As we have written before, the refugee review process is lengthy and involves multiple federal agencies. [FactCheck.org, 12/16/15]

PolitiFact: “The FBI Director Never Said, As Cruz Claims He Did, That The Government 'Cannot Vet' Refugees.” PolitiFact rated Cruz's claim “mostly false,” explaining that the refugee vetting process “involves the FBI as well as the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and other agencies.” The fact check noted that Comey “never said that federal agencies 'cannot vet' refugees in as plain of terms as Cruz suggested,” and that the process, which can “take up to two years,” “is effective and has gotten more so in the past few years” :

For the record, the United States can vet the refugees through a process that involves the FBI as well as the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and other agencies. The vetting process can take up to two years, in which refugees undergo several rounds of security clearance checks.

Comey has stressed, in testimony before several different congressional committees, that there are challenges (namely, information gaps) to how we screen the refugees, and that there's no risk-free process. But, he said, we've gotten “dramatically” better at the task in the past few years.

He never said that the federal agencies “cannot vet” refugees in as plain of terms as Cruz suggested.

[...]

Our ruling

Cruz said, “The head of the FBI has told Congress they cannot vet those refugees.”

The Cruz campaign pointed to comments Comey made about how he cannot personally vet every refugee admitted to the United States (required by a House bill that seeks to toughen the admissions process).

But the FBI director never said, as Cruz claims he did, that the government “cannot vet” refugees.

Comey has said there are challenges and gaps to the process and that there are always risks to admitting people from conflict zones. But he also said the process is effective and has gotten more so in the past few years.

We rate Cruz's claim Mostly False. [PolitiFact, 12/15/15]

Fact Checks Note That Multiple Candidates Wrongly Claimed That Social Media Checks Were Prohibited Or Willfully Ignored In Visa Cases

CNN: “There Is No State Department Policy Prohibiting Social Media Checks” And DHS “Also Allows Social Media Checks.” CNN explained that Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee each claimed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was restricted from checking social media during the visa vetting process. CNN debunked those claims, writing that “there is no State Department policy prohibiting social media checks by consular officers,” who are “free to check any and all publicly available information on an applicant, including their social media postings.” CNN noted that DHS “also allows social media checks.” The fact check further noted that “in recent months the U.S. has begun to take steps to review social media of visa applicants from certain countries” :

There is no State Department policy prohibiting social media checks by consular officers, who interview prospective visa recipients and make the final call on whether they qualify for a visa, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.

These consular officers are free to check any and all publicly available information on an applicant, including their social media postings.

That said, they aren't required to do so with every applicant.

The Department of Homeland Security -- which runs background checks on foreign applicants as part of the interagency process -- also allows social media checks, but again, they aren't required. In fact, in recent months the U.S. has begun to take steps to review social media of visa applicants from certain countries.

The value of these social media searches is limited, since terrorist sympathizers can conceal their identities online or use privacy settings to hide their posts.

In fact, San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik obscured her identity when making pro-jihad comments social media sites and used enhanced security settings, U.S. law enforcement officials told CNN this week.

Some of Malik's postings were only visible to a small group of friends, which runs in direct contrast to Cruz's suggestion that Malik made the statements publicly.

Verdict: False [CNN, 12/16/15]

AP Debunks Claim That DHS Didn't Look At Social Media Because They “Thought It Would Be Inappropriate.” The Associated Press debunked Ted Cruz's claim that “We didn't monitor the Facebook page of the San Bernardino terrorist because DHS thought it would be inappropriate,” clarifying that “The Department of Homeland Security has authority to look at social media such as Facebook when evaluating visa applications, and the agency says it does so in some cases.” The fact check pointed out that “scrutinizing social media accounts of every visa applicant would dramatically slow the approval process” and that monitoring the San Bernardino terrorists Facebook pages may not have prevented the attacks:

CRUZ: “We didn't monitor the Facebook page of the San Bernardino terrorist because DHS thought it would be inappropriate.”

THE FACTS: The Department of Homeland Security has authority to look at social media such as Facebook when evaluating visa applications, and the agency says it does so in some cases. But some experts say that scrutinizing social media accounts of every visa applicant would dramatically slow the approval process, including for tourist visas.

It's also unclear whether looking at the Facebook pages of the shooters in the California attacks would have prevented the attacks.

The male attacker, Syed Farook, was a U.S. citizen, born in Illinois, and never needed a visa. His wife, attacker Tashfeen Malik, 29, did enter the country on a fiancee visa and had used social media to speak of martyrdom and jihad. But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has said such posts weren't public. After the attacks, Facebook did find a profile under an alias linked to Malik with a post pledging her allegiance to the Islamic State. [Associated Press, 12/16/15]

Fact Checks Debunk Donald Trump's Claim That “People Are Pouring Across The Southern Border”

AP: “Trump's Suggestion That Illegal Immigration Is Increasing At The Border Is Not Supported By Arrest Statistics.” The Associated Press noted that “arrest statistics are widely regarded as the best measure” of the number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border into the U.S., and that “Trump's suggestion that illegal immigration is increasing at the border is not supported by arrest statistics and that 2015 border arrest statistics are actually at ” a near 40-year low":

DONALD TRUMP: “Our country is out of control. People are pouring through the southern border.”

THE FACTS: Arrest statistics are widely regarded as the best measure, if an imperfect one, of the flow of people crossing illegally into the U.S. And Trump's suggestion that illegal immigration is increasing at the border is not supported by arrest statistics discussed in recent months by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Johnson has said that during the 2015 budget year that ended in September, about 330,000 people were caught crossing the Mexican border illegally, a near 40-year low in border arrests. During the 2014 budget year, roughly 486,000 people were arrested.

In recent months there has been a spike in the arrests at the border, but primarily of children traveling alone and families, mostly from Central America. [Associated Press, 12/16/15]

Washington Post: “Trump Is Ignoring Data That Illegal Immigration Flows Have Fallen To Their Lowest Level In At Least Two Decades.” A Washington Post fact check explained that “Trump is ignoring data that illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades.” The fact check also cited Pew Hispanic Center's 2012 report on Mexican immigration finding “a sharp downward trend in net migration from Mexico” :

Trump is ignoring data that illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades. The nation's population of illegal immigrants, which more than tripled to 12.2 million between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about 1 million, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center.

In 2000, considered the peak of the flood of illegal Mexican migration, more than 1.6 million people were apprehended, according to Department of Homeland Security data. Those numbers have plunged to about 400,000 per year since 2012 and are down 28 percent in the first part of fiscal 2015 compared with last year.

The Pew Hispanic Center's 2012 report on Mexican immigration also found a sharp downward trend in net migration from Mexico, since the peak of nearly 7 million in 2007. [The Washington Post, 12/16/15]

AP Calls Out Sen. Rand Paul's False Claim That “Every Terrorist Attack We've Had Since 9/11 Has Been Legal Immigration”

Associated Press Debunks Paul's Claim That All Post 9/11 Terrorism Has Been Carried Out By Legal Immigrants. An Associated Press fact check debunked Paul's claim that “every terrorist attack we've had since 9/11 has been legal immigration,” noting that one of the San Bernardino attackers was born in Illinois and the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shooting was “not only an American but an Army major” :

PAUL: “Every terrorist attack we've had since 9/11 has been legal immigration.”

THE FACTS: Not so.

One of the San Bernardino, California, attackers was 28-year-old Syed Farook, who was born in Illinois. Nidal Hasan, who perpetrated the 2009 Fort Hood shootings that killed 13 people, was not only an American but an Army major. [Associated Press, 12/15/15]