Governors from more than half of country are attempting to block refugees fleeing conflict in Syria from being settled in their states citing concerns that they might carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Experts familiar with the issue say their fears are largely unfounded.
Evidence collected so far suggests that refugees were not involved in carrying out the gun and bomb attacks on the French capital. While hundreds of thousands of migrants have turned up on European shores in the last several months seeking asylum, the U.S. refugee resettlement program vets each person it admits through rigorous background checks that have a nearly flawless record at keeping terrorists out.
“Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott wrote in a letter to President Obama.
“I think the concerns that are being expressed are very much misplaced,” Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute said concerning the views of Abott and the 28 other governors who have who have taken similar positions.
The governors — all but one of whom is a Republican — have maintained their stance against accepting Syrian refugees even though policies on refugees are controlled by the federal government.
The history of the refugee resettlement program has a nearly spotless record when it comes to ensuring that those offered a place in the U.S. are not inclined towards committing acts of terrorism.
“The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since September 11, 2001,” Newland wrote in a recent op-ed. “In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.”
Two of the men were indicted and jailed for plotting to send weapons to terrorist organizations in Iraq. One Uzbek man was convicted of terrorism-related charges for possessing explosives and supporting a terrorist organization in Uzbekistan.
While it’s of course discomforting that three people who were granted refugee status in the U.S. went on to support terrorist activities, their actions are hardly a noteworthy stain on the record of the U.S.’ refugee resettlement program.
For some perspective, here’s how those three individuals fit in with the 784,000 refugees who have not been implicated in terrorism.
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
What that one little black dot symbolizes is just how rare it is for refugees to the U.S. to engage in activities that run counter to its national security.
The reason for that, Newland explained, is the fact that the screening process they go through is intensive, sophisticated, and has a proven track record – regardless of what a band of Republican governors would have their constituents believe.
Those who apply for refugee status in the U.S. will have two interviews with the United Nations agency responsible for refugees, Newland explained.
“They’re [then] checked against at least three departments of government databases: State Department, DHS, and the FBI,” she said. “If there’s any glimmer of concern their files will also go the National Counterterrorism Center. They will have face-to-face interviews with a DHS officer overseas.”
That process is a scrupulous one, according to Lavinia Limon, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
“Refugees undergo the most intensive security screening process of any people allowed to enter the U.S.,” she said. “The average processing time is two years.”
Limon added that the program purposely focuses on those who are the least likely to engage in terrorism.
“[T]he program emphasizes admitting the most vulnerable refugees including widows with children, the elderly, and infirm who are unlikely to pose a threat,” she said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.
“We can be pretty confident about the screening that’s in place,” Newland said, and added that those who are taking jabs at it haven’t done their homework. “It seems to me that it’s a political gesture rather than anything based on real evidence that would be cause for concern.”