WASHINGTON -- A top Obama administration official handling the now-controversial admission of refugees from Syria on Thursday pushed back against a point that's gained increasing traction among critics of the refugee program: that two refugees were arrested in 2011 for trying to help extremists in Iraq.
"Had our current system been in place, they would have been caught before they got here," said Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, during a hearing before a House panel on immigration.
Richard made the point after lawmakers made multiple references to the Iraqis' case.
Her statement appears to be the most direct Obama administration response thus far to a talking point favored by presidential candidates and Hill leadership alike as they advocate for rethinking the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees in the wake of last week's attacks in Paris. One of the attackers involved in that incident appears to have posed as a refugee while entering Europe. But that's not really relevant to the U.S. program, because -- as Mark Hetfield of the refugee resettlement nonprofit HIAS has testified -- Europe screens refugees after they've already arrived, while the U.S. vets refugees before they reach American soil.
Outside analysts have previously noted that the U.S. refugee screening process was improved following the 2011 incident with the Iraqi refugees.
It resulted in "a pretty vigorous effort to really use all available information that the federal government has to do extensive vetting," Christian Beckner, a homeland security expert at George Washington University, told the Associated Press this week.
The Iraqi refugees in question are Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, both of whom are now in federal prison after pleading guilty to terrorism charges. Alwan had been arrested in Iraq and confessed to being an insurgent years before he applied to come to the U.S. as a refugee, ABC News reported, but the tape of his interrogation went unnoticed by screening officials and he was able to move to Bowling Green, Kentucky. There, he and Hammadi tried to send missiles, guns and funds to al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to the Islamic State group.
The FBI caught the men two years after they arrived. Both Alwan and Hammadi later confessed to using improvised explosive devices against Americans while in Iraq, according to the FBI.
Richard told lawmakers that the current structure of the refugee admission program -- a labyrinthine process that can take up to two years and involve scores of U.S. officials -- would have caught the Iraqis' links to anti-American extremists before their arrival.
"The program that we run does as much as humanly possible to reduce the risks of bringing refugees to this country, and we have great confidence in it," she testified.
The Justice Department does not track how many people admitted to the U.S. through the refugee program are later involved in extremist activity. But news reports suggest there has only been one other case since the Sept. 11 attacks of a refugee conspiring to aid a foreign terror organization: that of an Uzbek man arrested in Idaho in 2013.
The Obama administration and many observers say the current paranoia about Syrian refugees is unnecessary, not to mention potentially hateful and racist. Syrian refugees are already sometimes subjected to a secretive additional screening process, Buzzfeed News revealed Wednesday. And people who seek to harm the U.S. appear more likely to travel here on a visa than wait years for a refugee application to be processed.
President Barack Obama has stood by his promise to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. next year despite dozens of governors, nearly all of them Republicans, claiming that they will turn approved applicants away from their states.
Congress, meanwhile, has involved itself in the dispute: On Thursday, the House passed a bill pausing the admittance of Iraqi and Syrian refugees until the administration offers even more guarantees about the vetting process. That legislation, however, seems unlikely to travel far. The Senate didn't appear inclined to take it up Thursday, and there's a good chance the current anti-refugee rhetoric will have cooled down somewhat by the time the upper chamber returns after Thanksgivi
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