After a series of attacks in Paris by the Islamic State group killed 129 people on Friday, several prominent Republican politicians called for the U.S. to stop taking in refugees from Syria, arguing that authorities might unwittingly allow terrorists to enter the country.
Despite the traction those arguments have gained, it makes little sense for an aspiring terrorist to apply to enter the United States as a refugee. Passing through the process often takes at least 18 months, and sometimes much longer. Applicants must pass background checks involving several U.S. government agencies, and many applicants are rejected. Overall, refugees are unlikely to be resettled at all -- the UN Refugee Agency says that only about 1 percent of the world's refugees end up being taken in permanently elsewhere.
Stephen Legomsky, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a news release that all these factors make it very unlikely that members of the Islamic State group planning to attack the U.S. would apply as refugees.
“[Refugees] are personally interviewed and thorough background checks are performed by Homeland Security and the FBI,” Legomsky said. “No competent terrorist would choose the U.S. refugee process as a preferred strategy for gaining entry into the U.S.”
Much of the concern about possibly admitting terrorists as refugees stems from the fact that one of the Paris attackers was found holding a Syrian passport that had been stamped at a Greek port of entry -- indicating that he’d traveled to Europe as part of the wave of hundreds of thousands of other migrants seeking refuge in Europe from violence in the Middle East and South Asia. But French authorities said Monday that the passport was forged, making it unclear whether the man, identified as Ahmad al-Mohammad, posed as a migrant to enter Europe or carried the faked passport to confuse authorities.
Whatever the case, the notion that admitting refugees increases the risk of terrorism rests on shaky foundations. The attackers who have been identified so far were from either France or Belgium, not Syria.
And if they had wanted to come to the United States, they wouldn't have had to do much more than buy a plane ticket. Only two of them would have been flagged by French authorities, according to CNN. Those who didn’t appear on European security watch lists and who held passports from countries included in the visa waiver program would have traveled straight to the U.S., like any other tourist. ISIS isn't short on fighters with European passports, either -- U.S. intelligence officials estimated earlier this year that 3,400 foreign fighters had joined the group from Western nations.
In the run up to last year’s election, immigration hardliners like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) similarly seized on the possibility that ISIS would carry out an attack through the border with Mexico -- despite repeated statements from officials with the Department of Homeland Security that no credible threat of such a plan existed and that it was far more likely that terrorists would travel to the United States on commercial planes rather than going to Mexico and attempting to illegally cross the border.
All of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 flew to the United States on planes and entered legally, mostly on tourist or business visas, which don't require the same scrutiny to acquire as does refugee status. Nearly 10 million people entered the United States that way last year, though consular services in Syria are currently suspended.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) played down concerns about admitting terrorists as refugees at a press conference on Tuesday while highlighting the problem posed by the daily arrival of tens of thousands of people with much less vetting.
“Each year roughly 70,000 refugees are admitted into the United States after a vetting and investigation process that lasts between 18 and 24 months,” Durbin said.
“While 70,000 refugees come to the United States [annually], literally millions of visitors come to the United States from overseas, some of them from visa waiver countries,” Durbin went on. “Let’s ask the hard questions about how we make sure that none of them can come into the United States and cause problems for us or a threat to our safety.”
Elise Foley contributed reporting.