Conservative media used the terrorist attacks in Paris to fearmonger about the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, claiming that the U.S. cannot effectively vet potential refugees, ignoring experts who say that the thoroughness of the U.S.'s refugee vetting process sets it apart from those of European countries.
Obama Administration Will Not Reconsider Decision To Accept Syrian Refugees After Terrorist Attacks In Paris
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes Says That The President Is Not Reconsidering The Admission Of Syrian Refugees. White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes explained on NBC's Meet the Press that because of the U.S.'s “careful vetting process” for refugees, the terrorist attacks in Paris have not caused the administration to reconsider its policy toward Syrian refugees:
CHUCK TODD (HOST): Does the president now have any pause about bringing Syrian refugees into the United States?
BEN RHODES: No, Chuck. We have very extensive screening procedures for all Syrian refugees who have come to the United States. There's a very careful vetting process that includes our intelligence community, our National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, so we can make sure that we're carefully screening anybody who comes to the United States. Let's remember though, Chuck, we're also dealing with people who've suffered the horrors of war -- women and children, orphans. We can't just shut our doors to those people. We need to sort out how to focus on the terrorists that we need to keep out of the country. But I think we do need to do our part to take those refugees who are in need. [NBC, Meet the Press, 11/15/15]
Conservative Media Dismiss Vetting, Stoke Fears That Terrorists Could Come As Refugees
Fox's Kilmeade: The U.S. Government “Can't Run Background Checks” On Refugees, So “We Cannot Continue To Have This Open Borders Attitude.” On the November 15 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends Sunday, host Brian Kilmeade asked correspondent Geraldo Rivera, "[w]hat's your take on these refugees," claiming, “they might be a bunch of saints or a bunch of ISIS members.” Kilmeade also denied that the United States vets refugees, saying that “we can't run background checks” (emphasis added):
BRIAN KILMEADE (HOST): What's your take on these refugees now, knowing that we can't run background checks, the government that is exporting them has collapsed, we have no idea who they were, they might be a bunch of saints, or a bunch of ISIS members. Being that it's America's security first or France's security first, depending on what country you are in, we cannot continue to have this open borders attitude when it comes to these refugees, don't you agree?
GERALDO RIVERA: I do, Brian, and the problem is that the pictures that you see that are so heart-rending of the refugees coming from Syria, generally speaking, they focus on the women and the children. The fact of the matter is, the majority of the refugees coming are young men of fighting age. Now, how do you vet them?
KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE (HOST): Seventy percent.
RIVERA: How do you know that their Syrian credentials are authentic? It is extremely difficult to do. It is almost inevitable. Eight hundred thousand this year alone, refugees flowing into Europe, passing through Turkey, going into the Balkan states and then coming up into Slovenia, Slovakia, Germany, Austria, and then here to France. The French president has closed the border, frankly, the controls now, particularly between here and Belgium -- ironically Belgium apparently has a really impoverished Islamic section where there has been a hotbed of radicalism. They found the car that you may have mentioned this morning, already came from Belgium, it had three Kalashnikovs, it was the get-away vehicle, you know. So Europe has to sort out its own business, this whole idea of open borders within the European Union, I think, will be all reassessed. And the refugee crisis, the immigration crisis, that we are alluding to, our own relatively -- compared to this -- benign immigration situation is a reflection of the world being on the move. All of the third world people, the fourth world people want to be someplace else. Plus you've got war and conflict and terror groups who want to disrupt civilization, who are apocalyptic nihilists who just want to destroy things. It is the future, I'm afraid. The world is a different place than it has ever been. It started maybe on 9/11, but it continues now 14, 15 years later, and where it stops? I'm telling you, our children have inherited a world that is a world of unease and tension and danger and peril. And we have to sort it out, we have to balance equities, we have to be compassionate but we also have to be practical and we have to watch our own back as a nation. You know, I just hope that the dialogue and the discussion and the debate about it is reasoned and rational and not just, you know, expletives deleted. It's got to be something where both sides agree. [Fox News, Fox & Friends Sunday, 11/15/15]
Fox's Bret Baier Cites Anonymous “Concerns About The Vetting Process” To Question Acceptance Of Refugees. While discussing Rhodes' assurance that the U.S. will honor its commitment to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade stirred fears about refugees, suggesting the administration is “tak[ing] your time figuring out a way to” sort out the foreign fighter flow and asking “what about putting America first for a change?” Fox's Bret Baeir added that “people up on Capitol Hill who know the homeland security apparatus, they have real questions and concerns about the vetting process that is in place right now”:
ELISABETH HASSELBECK (HOST): Back in September, the administration agreed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees here. Governors in both Alabama and Michigan are refusing refugees at this point, seeing what happened over the weekend. Take the temperature here for us and let us know, what is Washington feeling right now about those 10,000 refugees that the administration still plans to accept here?
BRET BAIER: This will be a huge political battle, Elisabeth. I think -- the administration is saying that the 10,000 are still on track to come in. You've already seen some coming in, into Louisiana, but you will have not only state governors, but presidential candidates who will make this a huge issue, about refugees.
STEVE DOOCY (HOST): As well it should be, absolutely. Ben Rhodes, one of the president's advisers who was on one of the Sunday chat shows, and he said up until 24 hours or 22 hours ago, the U.S. policy would be to continue to accept Syrian refugees. Listen to this, and we'll discuss.
BRIAN KILMEADE (HOST): Yeah, take your time figuring out a way to sort that out.
HASSELBECK: This is a tough one, I mean, you see -- OK, so there are women, there are children, there are men of fighting age. You know, we've had experts say between the ages of 16 and 40, they should sort those out. I mean, there's a lot of gray area here, Bret.
BAIER: There is. But if you talk to people up on Capitol Hill who know the Homeland Security apparatus, they have real questions and concerns about the vetting process that is in place right now, and as Ben Rhodes talks about, that the intelligence community has its hands full trying to protect against attacks to come. I really do think this is going to be a huge issue politically and I'm not sure how it goes forward.
KILMEADE: Because I don't think it's a Republican or Democratic issue. It's the average American walking around saying, why are we doing this? It's not in our interest to do this. What about America first for a change?
BAIER: Well, I think there is the balance, obviously America has always been welcoming the people who are suffering and you heard in the Democratic debate that the symbol of America is Lady Liberty, not barbed wire. But I do think that in this environment, it will be tough for this to move forward. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 11/16/15]
The Washington Times: The U.S. Has “No Way To Back-Check A Refugee's Story.” On November 15 The Washington Times reported that the administration “still” plans to receive Syrian refugees, even though “Homeland Security officials ... say they don't, in fact, have access to the kinds of checks back in Syria that would allow them to vet would-be refugees.” The Washington Times argued that without certain databases, the U.S. “has no way to back-check a refuge's story”:
The White House says it won't let its plans to bring Syrian refugees to the U.S. be derailed by Friday's terrorist attack in Paris, with a top official insisting Sunday that American authorities know how to weed out potential problems within the refugee community.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the administration has a complete plan to both contain the Islamic State overseas and keep its recruited fighters out of the U.S. in a way that France was unable to.
But top members of Congress are skeptical of those plans, pointing to “gaping holes” in American defenses, and said even top Homeland Security officials have admitted the U.S. does not have access to the kinds of records and databases in the Middle East that would make sure immigration officers could screen out terrorists.
Members of Congress said Mr. Rhodes was dead wrong, and pointed to fears among Homeland Security officials who say they don't, in fact, have access to the kinds of checks back in Syria that would allow them to vet would-be refugees.
Without access to those databases, and without people on the ground who can walk neighborhoods and verify details, there is no way to back-check a refugee's story to see whether he is who he says he is. That puts enormous pressure on the in-person interview, conducted by Homeland Security officers. [The Washington Times, 11/15/15]
New York Post: Obama Administration “Going Ahead” With Pledge To Admit Syrian Refugees “Despite” Attacks In Paris. In a November 15 article, the New York Post linked the possibility that one of the attackers in France might have entered Europe with refugees to question the Obama administration's policy of admitting 10,000 refugees from Syria. The Post seemed to question Ben Rhodes' assurances of "'careful' vetting," quoting Rep. Peter King claiming "[t]here is virtually no vetting because there are no databases in Syria" and Sen. Marco Rubio, who said, "[t]he problem is, we can't background-check them":
The administration is going ahead with its plan to admit thousands of Syrian refugees into the US despite the horrific attack in Paris -- where at least one of the attackers is believed to have posed as a Syrian migrant to get into the country.
Rhodes said the “careful” vetting would rely on input from “our intelligence community, our national Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, so we can make sure that we're carefully screening anybody who comes to the United States.”
He made those statements on NBC's “Meet the Press.”
US Rep. Pete King (R-LI), former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, blasted the move as dangerous.
“There is virtually no vetting because there are no databases in Syria,” he told Fox.
“We don't know who those people are. ... They are rolling the dice here, and we know that ISIS wants to bring in terrorists with these refugees.”
Presidential candidate and US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) added, "The problem is, we can't background-check them.
“You can't pick up the phone and call Syria, and that's one of the reasons why I said we won't be able to take more refugees,” Rubio said on ABC's “This Week.” [New York Post, 11/15/15]
In Fact Refugees Admitted To The U.S. Undergo “The Highest Level Of Security Checks” Of Anyone Entering The Country
PolitiFact: Refugees Undergo Multiple Security Checks During The “Length[y] And Thorough” Vetting Process, Which Takes On Average Two Years. According to a November 15 PolitiFact fact-check about the length of the refugee vetting process, “once a case is referred from the UNHCR to the United States, a refugee undergoes a security clearance check that could take several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsor agency, ”cultural orientation" classes, and one final security clearance," all before a refugee arrives in the United States. In addition, “experts confirmed that two years is the average review duration for Syrian refugees, which means that some wait even longer”:
Let's begin with an overview of the refugee admissions process.
Before a refugee even faces U.S. vetting, he or she must first clear an eligibility hurdle. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- or occasionally a U.S. embassy or another NGO -- determines which refugees (about 1 percent) should be resettled through its own process, which can take four to 10 months.
As we noted in a previous fact-check, once a case is referred from the UNHCR to the United States, a refugee undergoes a security clearance check that could take several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsor agency, “cultural orientation” classes, and one final security clearance. This all happens before a refugee ever gets onto American soil.
So how long does it take? Worldwide, about a year to 18 months, according to a State Department fact-sheet cited by the Bush campaign. A different page on the State Department website estimates an average time of 18 to 24 months.
For refugees from Syria and similar countries, however, the process can span two years, a spokesperson for the State Department told the Voice of America in September. Experts confirmed that two years is the average review duration for Syrian refugees, which means that some wait even longer.
“It can actually take almost three years. (Bush) is being optimistic,” said Lavinia Limón, the president of the advocacy group, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “The process for refugees is the most extensive security screening we have for visitors. It's easier to come in as a tourist, a student, a businessman.”
Even if they weren't from countries where terrorism was a concern, refugees would be “lucky” if the process took less than a year, Limón said. She pointed out that since the refugee program for Central American minors was established a year ago, the United States has yet to admit one child.
The length and thoroughness of the U.S. vetting system sets it apart from the “chaotic, dangerous process” for refugees fleeing into Europe by sea, said Geoffrey Mock, the Syrian country specialist for Amnesty International USA. Refugees enter European countries as asylum seekers and are granted access into the country without a thorough vetting from the UN. Scrutiny comes later.
“No vetting process can make guarantees, but the population identified by the UN and vetted by both organizations has worked successfully in alleviating crises in dozens of other countries, including Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and the Central African Republic,” Mock said. “There's no reason to believe Syria will be any different.”
In other words, the process for admitting a Syrian asylum seeker into France is much simpler than the process for resettling a Syrian refugee into the United States.
“The U.S. refugee program is incredibly controlled. You can be 99.9 percent sure that guy wouldn't have gotten here,” Limón said. “I understand the kneejerk reaction but you're painting a very broad brush stroke. Refugees, by definition, are fleeing terrorism. What happened in Paris, they've experienced. They've seen family members slaughtered and their houses burnt and they're running for their lives.” [PolitiFact, 11/15/15]
U.S. Department Of State: “Refugees Are Subject To The Highest Level Of Security Checks Of Any Category Of Traveler To The United States.” In a briefing on “the Mechanics of the United States Refugee Admissions Program,” a State Department official explained that “there are a number of processing requirements ... that cannot be waived,” which is “one of the many ways in which our Refugee Resettlement Program differs from a lot of other countries' resettlement programs.” The official stated that “refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States”:
So there are a number of processing requirements within the [U.S. Refugee Admissions Program] that cannot be waived, such as an in-person DHS interview, security checks, and a medical exam, including a TB test. And this is one way - one of the many ways in which our Refugee Resettlement Program differs from a lot of other countries' resettlement programs. A lot of other countries can do things like waive an in-person interview. They can take a case based on dossier. They do very few security checks in some cases. Those are not options that are available to us. So because of these very strict requirements that we have and because at any given time we're processing cases in 70 or more locations worldwide with a limited amount of resources, it currently takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months or even longer to process a case from referral or application to arrival in the United States.
All refugees undergo multiple security checks in order to be approved for U.S. resettlement. Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States. The screening includes involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, NCTC; the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center; DHS; the Department of Defense; and other agencies. [U.S. Department of State, 9/11/15]
USCIS Testimony Describes Multiple Ways Refugee Applicants Are Screened With Help From Security, Intelligence, And Counterterrorism Agencies. In an October 1 Senate hearing on refugee admissions, Barbara L. Stack and Matthew D. Emrich of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offered written testimony that explained the vetting and security check process for refugees entering the United States. The testimony explained that the resettlement process includes background checks with State Department and National Counterterrorism Center databases and fingerprint checks with FBI and Department of Defense databases, and that "[r]efugee applicants are subject to the highest level of security checks, and a refugee applicant is not approved for travel until the results of all required security checks have been obtained and cleared":
Refugee applicants are subject to the highest level of security checks, and a refugee applicant is not approved for travel until the results of all required security checks have been obtained and cleared.
All available biographic and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee applicant's identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview. Biographic checks 5 against the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) - which includes watchlist information - are initiated at the time of prescreening by the State Department's Resettlement Support Center (RSC) staff. In addition, an RSC request Security Advisory Opinions (SAOs) from the law enforcement and intelligence communities for those cases meeting certain criteria.
In the fall of 2008, USCIS launched a third biographic check with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which we now refer to as Interagency Checks or “IAC's.” Initially the IAC was required only for Iraqi applicants, but the IAC is now required for all refugee applicants within a designated age range, regardless of nationality. In addition, expanded intelligence community support was added to the IAC process in July 2010. In 2015, all partners coordinated to launch IAC recurrent vetting. With recurrent vetting, any intervening derogatory information that is identified after the initial check has cleared but before the applicant has traveled to the United States will be shared with USCIS without the need for a subsequent query.
In addition to these biographic checks, biometric checks against three sets of data are coordinated by USCIS, using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs which are typically collected at the time of the USCIS interview. These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Next Generation Identification system, and they are screened and enrolled in DHS's Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). Through IDENT, applicant fingerprints are screened not only against watchlist information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the United States and overseas - including, for example, cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy. Starting in 2007, USCIS began to work with the Department of Defense (DoD) to augment biometric screening by checking against the DoD Automated Biometric Identification 6 System (ABIS). ABIS contains a variety of records, including fingerprint records captured in theatre in Iraq, and it is a valuable resource to identify a wide array of relevant information. Today, ABIS screening has been expanded to refugee applicants of all nationalities who fall within the prescribed age ranges. [United States Senate, Senate Judiciary Committee, 10/1/15]
USCIS Testimony: Syrian Refugee Applicants Face Even More Stringent Security Checks. The October 1 USCIS testimony from Stack and Emrich explained that in addition to the normal security checks, “USCIS has instituted an additional layer of review for Syrian Refugee applications.” The testimony noted that “Syrian cases are reviewed at USCIS headquarters by a Refugee Affairs Division officer” before an interview with an officer in the field is scheduled, and that if certain criteria are met, those case “are referred to the USCIS' Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) for additional review and research”:
In addition to the existing suite of biometric and biographic checks that are applied to refugees regardless of nationality, USCIS has instituted an additional layer of review for Syrian refugee applications, taking into account the myriad actors and dynamic nature of the conflict in Syria. Before being scheduled for interview by a USCIS officer in the field, Syrian cases are reviewed at USCIS headquarters by a Refugee Affairs Division officer. All cases that meet certain criteria are referred to the USCIS' Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) for additional review and research. FDNS conducts open-source and classified research on referred cases and synthesizes an assessment for use by the interviewing officer. This information provides case-specific context relating to country conditions and regional activity, and it is used by the interviewing officer to inform lines of inquiry related to the applicant's eligibility and credibility.
Throughout the review process of Syrian refugee applicants, FDNS engages with law enforcement and intelligence community members for assistance with identity verification, acquisition of additional information, or deconfliction to ensure USCIS activities will not adversely affect an ongoing law enforcement investigation. When FDNS identifies terrorism related information, it makes the appropriate nominations or enhancements to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), using standard interagency watchlisting protocols. Additionally, USCIS drafts and disseminates reports to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies alerting the interagency to information that meets standing intelligence information requirements.
USCIS continues to work with DHS's Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and intelligence community members to identify options for new potential screening opportunities to enhance this already robust suite of checks. Finally, in addition to the checks that I have described, refugee applicants are subject to screening conducted by DHS colleagues at U.S. Customs and Border Protection's National Targeting Center-Passenger and the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight program prior to their admission to the United States, as is the case with all individuals traveling to the United States regardless of immigration program. [United States Senate, Senate Judiciary Committee, 10/1/15]