What do we know about Syrian refugees?

The Problem

Syria is on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism because it provides support for acts of international terrorism. It has been on this list since December 29, 1979. Concern about Syria being a breeding ground for international terrorism is so strong that aliens from Visa Waiver countries who have been present in Syria at any time on or after March 1, 2011, have been excluded from participation in the Visa Waiver Program by the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015.

According to a report that the House Homeland Security Committee released in November 2015, Islamist terrorists from Syria are determined to infiltrate refugee flows, and the United States lacks the information needed to screen Syrian refugees for possible terrorism connections. FBI Director James Comey told the Committee, “We can query our databases until the cows come home, but nothing will show up because we have no record of that person...You can only query what you have collected.” An FBI Assistant Director added that, “the concern in Syria is that we don’t have the systems in places on the ground to collect the information... All of the data sets, the police, the intel services that normally you would go and seek that information [from], don’t exist.” A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official stated further that the government does not have access to any database in Syria that can be used to check the backgrounds of incoming refugees against criminal and terrorist records. National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen explained that “the intelligence picture we’ve had of this [Syrian] conflict zone isn’t what we’d like it to be... you can only review [data] against what you have.”

The Homeland Security Committee concluded that immediate action must be taken to suspend the admission of Syrian refugees until our intelligence and law enforcement agencies can certify that the refugee screening process is adequate to detect individuals with terrorist ties.

The Administration has responded to concerns about the Syrian refugees by establishing a more elaborate screening process which takes between 18 and 24 months to complete. Frankly, I do not know how additional time helps if the sources being checked do not have the needed information, and, as you will see below, the Administration has cut the processing time back to three months to meet President Obama’s goal of bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees here this year.

The Department of State Consular Lookout and Support System. Name checks are conducted for all refugee applicants when they are prescreened at Resettlement Support Centers.

Security Advisory Opinion. The FBI and intelligence community partners perform a biographic check on Syrian refugees and refugees from other places that have been designated by the U.S. government as requiring a higher level check.

Interagency Check. This is a lower level screening of biographic data that applies to all refugee applicants within designated age ranges. This information is captured at the time of pre-screening and provided to intelligence community partners.

USCIS interview. When USCIS interviews the applicants, their fingerprints are taken and biometric checks are initiated. The officer conducting the interview —

  • Confirms the basic biographical data of the applicant;
  • Verifies that the applicant was properly given access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program;
  • Determines whether the applicant has suffered past persecution or has a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion;
  • Determines whether the applicant is admissible to the United States; and
  • Determines whether he has been firmly resettled in another country.

An FBI Next Generation Identification (NGI) check. This is a biometric check that is not limited to fingerprints. It also includes palm prints, irises, and facial recognition. The NGI program has established the world’s largest and most efficient electronic repository of biometric and criminal history information.

DHS Automated Biometric Identification System. This is a biometric record check for a travel and immigration history, immigration violations, and law enforcement and national security concerns. Enrollment in this system also allows CBP to confirm identity at the port of entry.

Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process (CARRP). If security and background checks or personal interviews raise national security concerns, USCIS conducts an additional review through the internal CARRP process. CARRP includes a complete review of the case file and, in most cases, additional screening with assistance from the law enforcement and intelligence communities.

Syria Enhanced Review. USCIS’ Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate and the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) have collaborated to provide an enhanced review of Syrian cases. FDNS provides intelligence-driven support to refugee adjudicators, including threat identification, and suggested topics for questioning. FDNS also monitors terrorist watch lists and disseminates intelligence information on applicants who are determined to present a national security threat.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Applicants who succeed in passing through the screening process must be admitted to the United States by CBP before they can receive refugee status. CBP inspects the refugees when they arrive at a port of entry to determine whether they are excludable under any of our immigration laws.

Screening process reduced to three months to succeed in bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees here this year

In a statement released on February 22, 2016, the U.S. Embassy in Jordan announced that, as part of the effort to reach the President’s goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, the State Department has established a temporary refugee processing center near Amman. Access to this center is by invitation only. State is hoping to bring an average of 1,500 Syrian refugees a month to the United States with this program, but it has insisted that it is not cutting corners on security. According to State, the security screening in of itself does not take 18 to 24 months. We have compressed the non-security portions of the case work so that the process can be shorter.

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