Experts see little threat with Syrian refugees

United States uses exhaustive background checks to vet refugees, accepts relatively few

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 12/3/2015, 6 a.m.

More than half of the governors across the country — all but one Republican — have vowed to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees within their borders, arguing that the risk of terrorism is too high to provide safe haven to those displaced by Syria’s civil war.

In a letter to President Obama, Texas Governor Greg Abbot said, “I write to inform you that the State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris.”

“Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” he continued. “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

Twenty-seven Republican governors also signed a joint letter calling on the White House to halt its plans to resettle Syrian refugees.

As governors rush to close their doors to Syrian refugees, many experts are now pointing out the problems with this kind of posturing.

“They have no authority to actually make that decision,” said Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director for the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The whole process is federal.”

As he explained, funding for refugee resettlement comes from the federal government, and is funneled through the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants.

While governors have no say in where refugees relocate, Sekhavat said that they do have the power to “make life quite difficult for the new folks” by denying funding to other agencies that provide services, such as English classes.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker initially joined in this chorus of opposition, saying, “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria,” but later walked back his comments and refused to sign on to the GOP letter to President Obama. “Massachusetts has a role in welcoming refugees into the commonwealth,” he said through a spokeswoman.

In the past four years, only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been accepted into the United States, but the Obama administration announced in September that 10,000 Syrians would be permitted entry next year.

Sekhavat also points out that the screening process for refugees coming to the United States is far more robust than the opponents of Syrian refugee resettlement are making it out to be.

According to the White House, refugee applicants are first interviewed by an international agency such as the UN High Commission on Refugees, which collects their biodata and biometrics — including iris scans for populations from the Middle East.

Those who pass this initial test — less than one percent of the global refugee population — move on to enhanced interagency security checks performed by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The applicant’s fingerprints are then run through USCIS, FBI, DHS and DOD databases.

If an applicant makes it through all of these security checks, plus a medical test and cultural orientation classes, then he or she may enter the country after additional screenings by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.