The devastating terrorist attacks on Paris have shined the spotlight on ISIS and their devotion to killing innocent people around the world. The appalling and deadly events have caused concern over the Syrian refugees that are being admitted into the United States. And with a presidential election coming up, the issue has been widely politicized to boost the stature of both Democrats and Republicans.
There have been 26 governors who have said that their state will not accept Syrian refugees. However, they do not have the authority to make such a decision, only the U.S. government has jurisdiction over whether immigrants and refugees of any nationality enter the country.
Some opponents of the Syrian refugees have suggested not admitting them into the United States based on the fact that they may be Muslims. That squarely goes against the fabric of this country and violates the First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion.
Donald Trump has brought up the idea that he would require Muslims in the U.S. to register in a database. In a later interview he clarified his position, suggesting a “watch list” for the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States. However, the First Amendment strictly prohibits the federal and state governments from passing laws that “aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another.”
There have been 3.8 million refugees escaping Syria since the tragic civil war, of which there have been 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled across the neighboring 565-mile border into Turkey. From there, many have infiltrated richer European nations with ease thanks to Europe’s open borders.
The United States has admitted 1,800 Syrian refugees and placed them in approximately 35 states since the civil war began on March of 2011 and destroyed the country. Over the last year, ending in September of 2015, the U.S. received 1,682 Syrian refugees. The Obama administration has pledged to embrace at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year after pressure from other world powers that the United States has not done enough to alleviate the refugee crisis. For comparison, Germany has accepted 98,700 Syrian refugees, Sweden has welcomed 64,700, Denmark has taken in 11,300, France has admitted 6,700 and Canada has accepted 2,370.
State Department figures, as reported in The Guardian, claim that there have been 784,395 refugees taken in from all over the world by the U.S. since 9/11, yet only three individuals have been arrested on terrorism charges. Two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were charged with assisting al-Qaeda in Iraq, and a Uzbek refugee with ties to an Islamist organization in Uzbekistan in 2013 in Boise, Idaho.
A State Department spokesperson disclosed that since 9/11, “only about a dozen — a tiny fraction of one percent of admitted refugees — have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S. None of them were Syrian.” Included in that number is Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarenev, who were both admitted to the United States as refugees.
But there is reason for precaution. An ISIS operative told BuzzFeed News in January that his mission is to sneak jihadists into Europe. The operative, who is a Syrian in his 30s, said he smuggles extremists from Turkey to Europe in small groups hidden in cargo ships that are filled with hundreds of refugees. He left a veiled and ominous threat, “Just wait.”
The International Business Times reported in October that Daesh is plotting to smuggle its fighters into Western Europe disguised as Middle Eastern refugees, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
The terrorist organization is seeking to move militants across borders disguised as refugees in a “trojan horse” tactic. They will be able to travel freely throughout Europe using fake passports and then attack when they are ready.
Their sources also said that ISIL was purposely moving away from plans to conduct aircraft hijackings because security had gotten too strict. However, their new strategy was to find soft targets that are nearly impossible to secure.
There is also much debate on the demographics of the Syrian refugees. In an interview with Yahoo News, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said:
“But if they’re here, they have to go back, because we cannot take a chance. You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.”
Last week the media picked up on one specific quote from the Obama administration that only 2 percent of Syrian refugees are “single males of combat age.”
Here’s a breakdown of the refugees from a Department of State official:
Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children; 2.5 percent are adults over 60. And I think you will have heard that only 2 percent are single males of combat age. So we – there’s slightly more – it’s roughly 50/50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not – not a lot more men. So this is normal that as you’re – as we set a priority of bringing the most vulnerable people, we’re going to have female-headed households with a lot of children, and we’re going to have extended families that are maybe missing the person who used to be the top breadwinner but have several generations – grandparents, a widowed mother, and children.
The key to the statement is wording. What is combat age? Are single men the only ones who will carry out terrorist attacks? What about married men? Based on this statement, there are at the very least 24 percent of the refugees who are male and between the ages of 18-60. This makes the dig at Republicans by President Obama seem very silly, “Apparently they are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States.”
Here’s the issue with admitting Syrian refugees into the country, how do you screen people from a war-torn country that has few criminal and terrorist databases to check?
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, addressed that concern at a security conference in September:
“As they descend on Europe, one of the obvious issues that we worry about, and in turn as we bring refugees into this country, is exactly what’s their background? We don’t put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. That is a huge concern of ours.”
During a congressional testimony in October, FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers:
“The good news is we have improved dramatically our ability as an interagency — all parts of the U.S. government — to query and check people. The bad news is our ability to touch data with respect to people who may come from Syria, may be limited. That is, if we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our database. I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”
Many people are under the suspicion that Syrian refugees will just waltz into the country without any vetting processes, but that simply is not true. The process for obtaining refugee status in the United States typically takes 18 to 24 months.
The process for any refugee to be accepted into the United States begins with an extensive background check, including the processing of biographic information (such as an applicant’s name and date of birth) and biometric information (such as fingerprints). The information is checked against databases in several different U.S. agencies including the FBI, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
If an applicant has applied for an overseas visa in the past, their biometric information should be on record. That information can be cross-referenced to ensure that the applicant has had a consistent story. Refugee specialists with the departments of State, Homeland Security and the National Terrorism Center double-check the applicant’s reason for asylum with both classified and unclassified records. For example, if a refugee claims his house was barrel bombed, agents investigate if Syrian forces used barrel bombs on that location in the same time frame.
Then the refugees go through a lengthy, in-person interview process overseas. For Syrian refugees the interviews take place in Amman, Jordan, Istanbul, Turkey, and in Cairo, Egypt. The interviews are conducted by DHS officers who spend at least eight weeks learning skills like how to question applicants and test their credibility as well as special training for interviewing refugees from Iraq or Syria.
Refugees from Syria and any nation are only admitted “after subjecting them to the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any traveler to the United States,” a senior administration official said.
The approval rate for refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. currently stands at just over 50 percent, senior administration officials said.
However, a Washington Times report from February of 2014, stated at least 70 percent of asylum applications from 2005 showed signs of fraud. And according to that 2009 internal government audit they found many of those cases had been approved anyway.
But there is also a moral conundrum for America, a nation that was built on the backs of immigrants. How could America preach about humanitarian rights to other countries and then not assist innocent people who are suffering from one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” President Barack Obama said at the G20 economic summit in Antalya, Turkey.
There are those who believe that ISIS wants the West to reject the Syrian refugees to fuel hate, and so that they can point out to moderate Muslims that there is Islamophobia coming from Western culture. When the United States and countries in Europe welcome refugees with open arms it destroys the Daesh narrative that the Western world despises Muslims. The fact that people across the Western world have reached out to help refugees has been incredibly damaging to this jihadist narrative.
The Syrian refugee debate is sure to be the kindling to much heated debate, and there are equally valid arguments on both sides of the argument. Hopefully for the American citizens and the Syrian refugees, the outcome is beneficial to both without any issues from either party.