How do I know incoming refugees are not terrorists?

The vetting process for all refugees – and especially those coming from countries with extremist ties – is extremely thorough and quite stringent.  The United States has been resettling refugees for a very long time, from World War II to the present day.  Our resettlement system – while not perfect – is based on decades of experience and has adapted as needed with the changing political climate over the years.   The vetting procedures are well thought out and designed specifically to weed out would-be terrorists, criminals, and other individuals harmful to the United States.  Many people fear that a terrorist will “slip through” the net.   No system is completely fool-proof, but there is significantly more reason to put confidence in the current vetting system than to fear it.  You can see outlines of the entire vetting procedure here and here.

Why wouldn’t every terrorist take the opportunity to infiltrate the U.S. disguised as a refugee?

The simple answer is that there are more reliant, faster, and easier means for a would-be terrorist to enter the United States than to come as a refugee.  Here’s why:

Long wait time

The process to apply for resettlement is not quick by any means.  An individual must first be granted refugee status by the United Nations after proving that they were forced to leave their own country for reasons of persecution.  Being granted refugee status does not necessarily happen immediately and many individuals must wait to receive their official paperwork that identifies them as a refugee.  Only after receiving refugee status may an individual then begin the process to apply for resettlement.  Most refugees wait years to be accepted (or denied) for resettlement to a third country.  If they are eventually approved for resettlement, they still must go through a separate process to be admitted into their specific resettlement country.  For the United States, refugee applicants can expect a minimum of 18-24 months to complete the vetting process alone, but oftentimes it is longer.

Low Chance of being selected

Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are chosen for resettlement to a third country.   Applying for resettlement in no way guarantees a refugee individual that they will actually be chosen for resettlement.  In fact, most are not.  A terrorist would also face the same poor chances of being selected for resettlement.

No Choice of Resettlement Country

Most refugees do not have a choice of which country they will resettle to.  (A few exceptions might be if they need a specific type of medical care or if they have family members already living in a certain country.  But even then, nothing is guaranteed.)  A terrorist posing as a refugee would have no guarantee of actually being sent to the United States.  He or she could instead be assigned to one of the other 25 nations with resettlement programs.

Stringent Vetting Process

If a terrorist posing as a refugee were to make it through the long selection process and also be assigned to resettle in the United States, it is still highly unlikely that he or she would make it through the U.S.’s detailed vetting process.  The vetting process involves much more than just a simple background check.  It includes fingerprinting, retinal scans in some cases, personal interviews, medical checks, and numerous security re-checks.  Multiple government agencies and security organizations are involved in the process including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, CIA, and Interpol.  Throughout the entire process, a refugee must repeat their story over and over again to multiple sources.  With each re-telling, the story must match what has been already written in their file.

Given the significant wait time, the complete lack of control over where they will be sent, and the stringent vetting process, it is much faster and simpler for a terrorist to enter the United States on a legitimate visa, or to enter illegally.

 

How many refugees have come to the United States and killed U.S. citizens or other individuals through acts of terrorism?

Zero.

Refugees are often lumped in with all immigrants.  Thus, it is a common misconception that the high-profile cases such as the Boston Bombers, the San Bernadino shooters, and the Orlando nightclub shooter were refugees.  They were not.  This article provides a brief summary of each of those attacks.

 

How many refugees have committed acts of terrorism in the United States?

Very few.  One carried out an attack with the intent to harm others: the young man who attacked a dozen people at Ohio State University in September 2016.  He came to the U.S. as a child refugee with his family.  It appears that this young man was radicalized in the U.S. and that his radical ideology was the impetus behind his horrendous actions.

Three other individuals who came to the U.S. as refugees were arrested in 2011 and 2013 for involvement with and support of terrorist organizations abroad.  However, none committed an attack in the United States.

The revised executive order also mentions the case of a Somali man, who reportedly came to the U.S. as a child refugee.  He attempted to carry out an attack in Portland, Oregon, but was actually being monitored throughout the process by undercover agents as part of an FBI sting operation.  He was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Since the beginning of the official resettlement program in 1980, nearly 3 million refugees have been admitted to the United States.  The incredibly low number of refugees who have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes is actually an argument for the reliability of the vetting process rather than an argument against it.  Statistically, Americans are more likely to die as a result of an asteroid impact, lightning strike, or shark attack than to be killed by a terrorist who entered the U.S. as a refugee.

 

Wouldn’t it be a good thing to screen refugees and all immigrants as thoroughly as possible?

Absolutely.  In order to provide protection to those fleeing persecution, we must maintain the security and sovereignty of our own country.  It is not only reasonable, but also good policy to screen immigrants and visiting non-immigrants, especially in the wake of terrorism around the globe.

What many people do not realize is that refugees have always been thoroughly screened, while most immigrants and visitors entering on visas are not.  In fact, the screening standards for refugees entering the United States has been re-assessed and strengthened over the years, particularly following 9/11.  As stated above, the vetting process takes a minimum of 18-24 months for refugee applicants to clear, though, in reality, it often takes years.  Refugees go through checks with multiple agencies in addition to fingerprinting, biometric scans, and multiple in-person interviews.  If there are significant unanswered questions about an individual or if there is any reason to suspect ties to terrorism, then their case is simply denied.

The screening process should constantly be reviewed to ensure its effectiveness.  Additionally, it would be beneficial to institute a screening process for all immigrants entering the country, not just refugees.

 

Why can’t we simply help refugees where they already are? 

The ultimate solution to the refugee crises is stopping the wars and situations of persecution that create refugees.

In the meantime, we can help refugees where they are.  And we should.  It is important to support the individuals and organizations with “boots on the ground” in the UN camps and intermediary country locations such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.  The needs are immense and we can do much to help.

But the reality is also that the countries hosting refugees are often overwhelmed and faltering under the immense burden of caring for so many additional people.   They simply cannot meet the immense needs of incoming refugees.  The strain affects their ability to provide for their own population, creating further instability in those regions.  Responsibility sharing for refugees (through resettlement) reassures host countries that they do not bear this burden alone, and that they are not “stuck” with the problem in isolation.

86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing nations whose infrastructure and economy are not stable enough to adequately care for an influx of additional people with extreme needs.  For example, the tiny nation of Lebanon is hosting over 1 million Syrian refugees, meaning that one in six people currently living in Lebanon is a refugee.

Refugee resettlement provides a viable, long-term solution to help relieve even a little of the burden that host countries bear.  Throwing money and resources at the situation will help in the short-term.  But it does not provide an effective, long-term solution when considering prolonged displacement.

 

But we can’t bring everyone here.

No, we can’t.  And the goal of refugee resettlement is not to bring “everyone” here.  Rather it is to provide safety to those who are the most vulnerable and who are unable to get the protection or assistance they need in the places where they currently reside.  Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled to any of the 25+ resettlement nations.  Those we do resettle are the “worst of the worst”, typically those who are the most vulnerable, the most endangered, or in the most intractable circumstances.

Additionally, most refugees want to return home, not to go to a foreign land where language and culture are unfamiliar and where they will be separated permanently from friends and family.  But sometimes, resettlement provides the only viable and long-term option for safety, opportunity, and survival.

The UNHCR estimates that approximately 8% of the 21.3 million refugees around the world are in need of resettlement.  We can easily provide safe haven for these most vulnerable individuals and families who need a permanent resettlement solution, while continuing to assist other refugees where they are with the hope that they will be able to return home in the future.

 

What can I do to help?

  1. Pray. For refugees.  For those who work with refugees.  For our leaders.  For our president.
  1. Contact your representatives here.  Let them know that you support the continuation of the refugee resettlement program.
  1. Reach out to refugees already in your community.  Reassure them that you stand behind them, love them, and support them.  Build relationships.
  1. Get informed and educate others.  Initiate open, non-judgmental dialogue with your friends, family members, and community about refugee resettlement.
  1. Invite friends and community to attend a Refugee Info Night (offered monthly) if they want to learn more or have questions.  You can find the dates of upcoming Refugee Info Nights here.