Myths vs. Facts in the Syrian Refugee issue

The recent attacks in Paris have ignited a firestorm of controversy about refugees in the United States.  Based on information that has been released in this still on-going investigation, at least one of the Paris bombers was fingerprinted in Greece and may have posed as a refugee.  This has led to an outcry here in America.  Unfortunately, what has been feeding into this outcry is a massive amount of misreporting on the issue of refugees, both in the United States and elsewhere, and this has been exacerbated by incorrect and misleading comments from elected officials and candidates for office.

This is too important an issue to allow prejudices, nativism and misinformation posing as fact to color our objective policy ideas.  To try to cut through some of the false narratives, here is a list of myths and facts about Syrian refugees, American refugee policy, and other issues in the news lately.

Once we can all agree as to the facts, we can begin determining what, if anything, we need to do here at home on this issue.

Myth #1 – There is a flood of Syrian refugees entering the United States.

This myth has been making the rounds, and was given credence yesterday by Donald Trump.

This just isn’t true.

According to the State Department. 1,869 Syrians have entered the United States since October 2014.  The bulk of those, 1,682, came during FY 2015.  The White House pegs the total number of Syrians who have been relocated to the United States since 2011, the start of the Syrian civil war, at 2,034.

The New York Times used slightly different numbers in this article with a map showing relocations, claiming 1,854 have entered the United States since 2012.

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, 25 Syrian refugees have been relocated to Virginia in FY 2015, and none so far in FY 2016, which began October 1.

There is no flood of refugees. Given the tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees being accepted in Europe and the Middle East, this is a relative trickle.

Myth #2 – The Obama Administration wants to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to relocate to the United States.

This myth has been all over the place, far longer than the blowback from the Paris Bombings.  As Glenn Kessler notes in his Washington Post Fact Check column, three of the top Republican presidential candidates have repeated this myth in recent days.

“Our president wants to take in 250,000 from Syria. I mean, think of it. 250,000 people. And we all have heart. And we all want people taken care of and all of that. But with the problems our country has, to take in 250,000 people — some of whom are going to have problems, big problems.”

— Donald Trump, Nov. 14

“When the president says things like, you know, through an executive order, ‘I’m going to bring 100,000 people in here from Syria,’ Congress needs to say ‘you do that and we’re going to defund everything including your breakfast.’”

— Ben Carson, quoted in a SuperPac ad released Nov. 17

 “I am angry that President Obama unilaterally decides that we’ll accept up to 100,000 Syrian refugees while his administration admits we cannot determine their ties to terrorism.”

— Carly Fiorina, Nov. 14

There’s nothing accurate about these claims. The Obama Administration, by Congressional authorization and not by executive order, sets the total number of refugees permitted to relocate to the United States each year. That number has hovered around 70,000 total over the past few years, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.  The President has been under pressure to increase that number, given the number of refugee creating crises around the globe, including in Syria, Africa and Iraq.  He has pledged to increase the number we accept gradually, from 70,000 to 85,000 in FY 2016, and 100,000 in FY 2017.

As the Post noted here in a September article, the President has ordered an increase in the total number of refugees from any country, and has set a goal of allowing 10,000 Syrians to relocate here in the next fiscal year.

10,000 is a smaller number than 200,000.

Myth #3 – We don’t vet Syrian refugees before they come here and the FBI Director says we can’t vet them.

A variety of elected officials have claimed that we don’t vet or can’t vet Syrian refugees before they come here, including Congressman Louie Gohmert.

Not only is that false, it flies in the face of other facts – namely, that the reason we have accepted so few Syrian refugees since 2011 is because of the intense and time consuming vetting process to screen out possible insurgents.  From the Post article from last September: “So far, the United States has lagged far behind several European countries in its refu­gee aid efforts, largely due to the time-consuming screening procedure to block Islamist militants and criminals from entering the United States under the guise of being legitimate refugees.”

The process for a refugee to be resettled is a long and arduous one, with multiple vettings and screenings throughout.  The following is based on the White House website, the State Department’s website and an exhaustive article done by CQ Roll Call.

Once a refugee is displaced, the process to become relocated to the United States begins with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  The UNHCR serves as the liaison between the United States and the refugee, although there are other NGOs and private voluntary organizations who also work with refugees and serve as go-betweens.  Refugees generally apply through the UNHCR for resettlement, although about a quarter of refugees apply to the United States directly.  Applications are made before the refugee ever sets foot in the United States.  The UNHCR does the initial screening, verifying identity and other basic information.  All refugees are urged to be registered with UNHCR to be considered refugees under international law.

Once completed, they are passed on to the State Department.  Immediately, any Syrian refugee is subject to additional screening through the Department of Homeland Security, called the “Syria Enhanced Review.”  Once complete, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official reviews the paperwork.  If approved, an interview is scheduled. The U.S. uses the International Organization for Migration for its vetting interviews.

At that point, if any of the vetting of these refugees raises any red flags, the case can be forwarded to the Fraud Detection and National Security Division of USCIS.

If cleared, at that point, the State Department conducts a field interview – the refugee is still in a camp or other location, and not on U.S. soil – to determine whether they fit the legal definitions of a refugee.  They are fingerprinted and photographed, and then all of their information goes through the FBI criminal database, and DHS’s terrorist and criminal watch-list, as well as USCIS and ICE’s databases for those who have had contact with immigration officials in the past.

Once that’s complete, they go through another round of security screenings, including vetting through the Department of Defense, the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counterterrorism Center and others.  This part of the process is classified, but it’s likely that they go through Intelligence Community reviews as well. At the same time, the refugees are given health screenings for diseases that could prevent them from relocating.

At that point, if they pass everything and are approved for relocation, they are flown to the United States.  They have to get through TSA and Customs, take a three-day class on basic information about the United States and then they’re relocated to a permanent home.

Refugees lose their status after a year and they must apply for permanent resident status. After five years, they can become citizens.

The entire point of this process is to screen out potential radical Islamists and criminals from this program.

The White House has an outline of these steps here.  The process can take anywhere from one and three years to complete.  They have put together a video that goes through the details, and you can watch it here.

And if you want to hear what it’s like from a refugee who has gone through the process, you can read one woman’s story here.

Does this sound like “no vetting?” Does it sound like this system is not well thought out and logical, or a system that is not sufficiently mature that it needs a “time out” for review?  Given the miniscule numbers of refugees relocated, it seems as if this program is working. And it’s completely different from the refugee process that those making their way to Greece and the other EU countries have gone through.

This vetting has culled the vast majority of potential refugees out.  The White House confirmed that of the 23,092 Syrian refugees who have been referred to the United States for potential relocation, only 7,014 of them reached the interview process.  Of that 7,014, only 2,034 have been resettled.  Syrian refugees have less than a 1 in 10 chance of being accepted into the U.S. refugee program.  This is more evidence of the rigor of the process.

As for FBI Director Comey’s oft paraphrased concerns with gaps in the vetting process, the frequent claim – as noted by Congressman Gohmert – is that he claimed it was impossible to vet them because we don’t have the data.  That’s not exactly what he said.  His quote was:

“And so 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…”

That’s true – but that’s true in any kind of vetting situation.  It’s the same refrain we hear when someone who has never committed a crime picks up a gun and shoots up a school.  If no one has shown any evidence of radicalization, they will be hard to vet.  That doesn’t mean impossible, however, and it doesn’t mean that no vetting occurs because of it.  We have intelligence on that area of the world, but not as much as we could have.  Using the FBI Director’s correct statement out of context here is inappropriate.  The reality, based on the numbers who are referred versus the numbers admitted makes it pretty clear – if we can’t vet someone properly, they don’t get allowed to relocate here.

Myth #4 – Most of the refugees are men of military age.

You’ll see this myth most often on social media, but it was reported on blogs and elsewhere.  The claim is that this figure was proven by the United Nations, but the data they are referring to is based solely on the numbers of refugees who are trying to enter Europe, doesn’t include any age ranges besides “men” and “children” and isn’t restricted to Syrians, either

This is another one of those situations where social media and the blogs misread a chart and then run with the idea.  The facts are more in line with what you would expect – based on the UNHCR’s registration data, 22% of the total number of refugees are military aged males (18-45).  Over half the total are women, and more than half of the males are either younger than 18 or older than 60.  There is evidence that many young men in Syria don’t want to fight, but they aren’t constituting anything close to a majority of refugees.

In the United States, the numbers are strikingly different – of those admitted for resettlement in America, only 2% were men of military age unattached to a family or with no family (which I take to mean, unmarried).  That’s a far cry from the claims of some that we’re letting in loads of unattached men in their early 20s, ripe for radicalization.

Myth #5 – Posing as a refugee is an easy way to get into the United States.

If the facts provided in Myth #3 didn’t make it clear that posing as a refugee is not an easy way to enter America, let’s look at the alternatives.

Of the confirmed identities of the Paris bombers, we know that three have been identified as French nationals and one as a Belgian national.  If they had wanted to carry out these attacks in the United States, they could have easily gotten here through the Visa Waiver program.

38 countries participate in the United States Visa Waiver program, which is designed to allow for expedited processing of tourists and travelers to the United States.  Most of the EU nations are on there, including France and Belgium.  The only other step is paying a fee and an online screening through a DHS database.  That’s a far easier process than waiting the year or two required to get into the United States as a refugee.

Myth #6 – Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States aren’t taking in any refugees.

This is another common myth, often paired with questions regarding why the U.S. should be accepting any refugees at all if their own neighbors aren’t doing so.  This one is all over social media, and in the conservative press.

As usual, this is not true.  The bulk of the estimated 4 million refugees from Syria have been settled in the surrounding states.  Nearly 2 million in Turkey, another million in Lebanon, 600,000 in Jordan and over 100,000 in Egypt and Iraq each.

On Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, that claim at least, has a rational explanation. The primary reason for this myth is that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are not signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.  Thus, their refugee relocations are not handled by the UNHCR, and their statistics aren’t compiled by the UNHCR.  So if you go looking for stats on Saudi Arabia or UAE through the UNHCR’s website, you’re not going to find anything.

Saudi Arabia claims to have relocated over 2.5 million refugees within it’s territory.  And they’re tired of people disbelieving them.  Even though the UN doesn’t count them, they acknowledge that at least 500,000 refugees have ended up in Saudi Arabia.

Myth #7 – The Boston Bombers were refugees.

This one has started to make the rounds because of a Washington Post article with some misleading reporting.

There’s a big difference between refugees and those who are granted asylum, not the least of which is asylum is granted to those already physically present in the United States, whereas refugees are waiting outside to be let in.  The Tsarnaev brothers were both granted derivative asylum through their parents, all who traveled to the U.S. on tourist visas.  They were not refugees and did not go through the refugee screening process.

The asylum process is similar to the refugee process with a major distinction – the asylee is present in the United States throughout the entire process, even if his asylum request is denied.  Refugees aren’t.  That’s a big difference.

Regardless, at the time of their entering the United States – more than a decade prior to the Boston Bombings, neither of the Tsarnaev brothers were on anybody’s radar, which makes sense, as they were both 15 and 8 at the time.  That didn’t happen until in 2013.

Myth #8 – Governors can bar refugees from being placed in their states.

A quick reading of the Constitution, which vests all of the immigration and naturalization powers in the Federal Government and makes Federal law the supreme law of the land, should blow up this argument.  Unfortunately Governors from a variety of states, both Democrat and Republican, have claimed that they will prevent Syrian refugees from being located within their states.

They don’t have the authority to do this.  They know they don’t have the authority to do this.  But it makes for a good headline.

The Refugee Act of 1980 authorizes that “the number of refugees who may be admitted under this section . . .  shall be such number as the President determines, before the beginning of the fiscal year and after appropriate consultation, is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”  Once admitted to the United States, they are free to move about the country, just like any other legal resident alien or citizen.

Even Breitbart acknowledges that the Governors can’t overrule the President.

What the Governors can do is refuse to cooperate with Federal authorities to ease the placement of these individuals, which is commonly what happens today.  State and local governments work with the State Department to ensure placements that make sense – placements in areas where there are support networks, native language speakers or family members who can assist with transition.  Governors could refuse to work with the Federal government in that regard, which would simply run up the costs and force the Federal government to bring on more staff to handle these locations.  Not exactly the most fiscally conservative solution, but it’s within their power.  Fortunately, most of the efforts to relocate and ease transition for refugees are handled by voluntary organizations.  There’s a great article about one family’s journey in National Geographic from last February.


Draw your own.  While some will continue to claim that even one bad apple could cause a major attack here in the U.S., it’s important to note that no refugees admitted as refugees have ever committed an act of terror in the United States.  Yes, a few have been involved in crime, terror plots (a total of 3 have been convicted of plotting attacks outside the U.S.) and some have been arrested, but to date, not one American has been killed in America by a refugee.  Not allowing in refugees has security risks associated with it too, namely the propaganda victory ISIS and others can use as leverage, demonstrating their ability to influence our foreign policy through terror.  This is what they want us to do.  A number of evangelical groups and the U.S. Conference of Bishops are pushing back on calls to limit refugee relocation, given their traditional support and assistance for supporting refugees.  When it comes down to it, barring refugees is fundamentally unAmerican.  As Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address:

“And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one—a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”

A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980’s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again—and in a way, we ourselves—rediscovered it.”

We stand for freedom in the world.  We shouldn’t let terrorists – here or in Europe – change that.

But that’s just my take.  Draw your own conclusions, and let them be based on facts, not fear.

UDPATE: French President Francois Hollande has said that France will increase the number of refugees it accepts to 30,000.  These guys just got hit by major terrorist attacks and they’re letting more refugees in.  We haven’t been hit at all, and we are debating whether we should let in any.  For all those Francophobes who mock the French for surrendering, this is the opposite of that.  If the French are willing to do this less than a week after these attacks, we should stop and think about how we’ve addressed this issue at home.

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