What You Don’t Know About Vetting Syrian Refugees

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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State Department and other federal officials claim Syrian refugees are screened “rigorously,” but the skepticism shrouding the process dominated a contentious congressional oversight hearing Thursday.

The vetting process takes up to two years, involves the United Nations and multiple federal agencies, and uses data collected across government for multiple background checks and interviews, department officials told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security Thursday.

But byzantine process may not be enough to keep terrorists out of the U.S.

“The safety and security of our fellow citizens should be the driving force behind all decisions we make as representatives,” Subcommittee Chairman [crscore]Trey Gowdy[/crscore] said. “We are the most welcoming country in the world.”

The South Carolina Republican added that “ISIS terrorists are intent on finding ways to attack America. It’s not that we don’t have a process” to vet refugees. “We don’t have any information.”

The top State Department official overseeing refugee affairs contested Gowdy’s point.

“We screen applicants rigorously and carefully in an effort to show no one who poses a threat to Americans enter the country,” State Department Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Anne C. Richard told the Gowdy subcommittee. “If we have any doubts about anyone,” they’re “not allowed to come in.”

Despite the records review, a big proportion of Syrian applicants are approved.

“Ninety percent of Syrian refugee cases are being approved,” Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian told the panel. “The average worldwide is 80 percent. How stringent of a vetting process can it be if 90 percent are being approved?”

Doubt about the process echoes recent statements by law enforcement authorities, including FBI Director James Comey, who told the House Committee on Homeland Security Oct. 21 that there is insufficient  data available to vet Syrian refugees.

“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 showing up because we have no record of them,” Comey said.

FBI records aren’t the only documents used during the vetting process. Officials also search databases created by other agencies, including the departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security.

“We’re happy to … go into the point that the FBI holding could only tell you a limited amount of information,” Richard said. “That’s why we have to use many more databases, many more techniques to get the whole story.”

Even that data is imperfect.

“There’s a limit of how effective that can be, since there’s an extreme paucity of data,” Krikorian said. “What little information might have existed has gone up in smoke, or at least it’s not available to us.”

Ultimately, there are too few records available in any databases, theDCNF previously reported.

State Department and Homeland Security officials, for example, search fingerprint records of Syrian refugees, but there’s no guarantee that any credible records have been created or are available to the United States.

Even if the databases come up empty on any given applicant, Syrian refugees have to go through at least three interviews, each becoming more personalized.

Interview questions are “determined very carefully on a case-by-case basis,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez told the subcommittee. An interview “takes as long as it needs to take.”

Through these interviews, federal officials try to determine Syrian refugee applicants’ family trees, aliases, and the identities of anyone they associate with, according to Rodriguez. Each interview, as well as data collected, are used to help the next examiner determine what questions to ask.

Nonetheless, the process isn’t flawless.

“We have a problem with forged documents that are fooling Europeans and may be fooling us, as well,” said Virgina Republican Bob Goodlatte, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

In fact, eight people have been caught in Europe using a fake passport nearly identical to one owned by a Paris attacker.

Also, Richard admitted that they don’t track Syrians refugees after three months and couldn’t say whether any had been arrested, the DCNF previously reported.

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