'America's Refugee Program Serves Vital National Security Interests and Reflects America's Best Values and Character'

As one who has served on the House Homeland Security Committee since its creation in 2002 and the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, I have spent much of my congressional career on matters relating to national and homeland security.

In the 14 years since that heart-wrenching day on September 11, 2001, our nation has learned much from our initial responses to that terrorist attack and we have a much better idea today of what types of actions work, those which do not, and those which are well-intentioned but have the unintended consequence of undermining America's moral leadership in the world.

An example of the latter is the so-called American SAFE Act of 2015 (H.R. 4038), which denies asylum to any refugee from Syria or Iraq unless the Director of the FBI, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence to independently and unanimously certify with 100 percent certainty that the refugee poses no threat to the national security of the United States.

This legislation, which was brought to the House floor for a vote on less than 48 hours' notice and without undergoing a single hearing by the Judiciary or Homeland Security Committee, does nothing to make America safer or to strengthen our nation's refugee program. In fact, it does not the opposite.

It undermines America's moral leadership in the world by effectively ending a program that has served our nation, its allies, and the international community well since 1951.

The American SAFE Act is unnecessary because the United States already has in place the world's most rigorous screening process for refugees seeking asylum. The critical features of this 16-step process require that every applicant for asylum must:

  1. Register with, and be pre-screened by, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees;
  2. Provide background information, including what caused him or her to flee their home country (a ready means of comparing information provided by more than one million refugees to further verify the validity of the information provided);
  3. Meet one of five legal qualifications: threat of violence based on race, religion or faith or national origin; political beliefs; or membership in a targeted social group.
  4. Undergo a rigorous background check during which investigators fact-check the refugee's biography to ensure consistency with published or documented reports of events such as bombings or other violence;
  5. Be subjected to biometric tests conducted by the Department of Defense, in conjunction with other federal agencies (the U.S. military has an extensive biometric data base on Iraqis from its time in Iraq); and
  6. Sit for intensive in-person interviews, which may takes a minimum of 18-24 to conduct and complete.

In addition, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have over the past several years established and perfected an intensive form of screening for Syrians called the "Syrian Enhanced Review," which involves a vetting even more intensive and intrusive that applied for other asylum seekers.

This rigorous screening process has produced these results: of the 22,000 Syrian refugees pre-screened by the UNHCR and referred to the United States, less than one-third, about 7,000, were selected for further review and investigation by the United States. Of those 7,000 Syrians refugees, less than one-third, or about 2,200, were accepted for asylum and placement in the United States.

The demographic breakdown of those Syrians who have been approved for refugee status to come to the United States is as follows: children, 50 percent; persons over the age of 60, 25 percent; unaccompanied adult males, 2 percent.

The last thing a terrorist would want is to be a refugee -- living in the harsh environment of a refugee camp for two years and undergo the intensive screening and investigation, biometric checks, and monitoring by law enforcement and intelligence agents, especially given the overwhelming probability that his or her application will be rejected.

We must be careful not to engage in ethnic or religious profiling because we have learned through bitter experience that it is morally and politically wrong to regard an entire group of people as unworthy of compassion, regard, concern, or consideration because of their race or religion or ethnicity.

The Paris terrorist attacks were perpetrated by French and Belgium nationals, not Syrian refugees. But just as we should not exclude all French and Belgium nationals from entering the United States, the world's mightiest nation must not be afraid to show compassion and provide sanctuary to some of the world's most vulnerable persons, including Syrian mothers, children, and seniors.

That is what a great nation does. And America is a great nation.


Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing Houston in the U.S. House of Representatives, is a senior member of the House Committees on Homeland Security and the Judiciary. She is the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.

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