Banning Syrian Refugees Won't Make America Safer, Only More Ashamed of Itself

If ISIS victims are banned from America, only ISIS will get in


When defending gun rights, conservatives point out that when guns are outlawed only outlaws have guns. The same logic applies to fleeing Syrian refugees: If ISIS victims are banned from America, only ISIS will enter.

But logic doesn't seem to be driving the conservative response to the refugee crisis in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Syrian Refugee Women

Fear and naked politics is.

The Obama administration hasn't exactly covered itself in glory since Syrian refugees started fleeing the bloodbath in their home country, as I wrote two months ago. Between 2013 and this March, it had admitted less than 500 Syrian refugees. (Since then, the pace has picked up somewhat after the dead body of a fleeing toddler lying facedown on a Turkish beach shocked the world.)

But the Republican response has gone from ridiculous to spiteful after reports surfaced that a fake Syrian passport was found near the body of a Paris attacker. But as the Niskanen Center's David Bier has pointed out, it is far from clear that the passport actually belonged to the attacker. And if it did and it turns out he had exploited the flow of people into Europe, that does NOT him a refugee make. "He did not receive refugee designation from the United Nations or vetting from intelligence agencies," notes Bier. "He was never approved for refugee status in any country." Hence there is no reason for America to go all weak-kneed on refugees given that all its refugees are vetted prior to admission. "What happened in Paris is not applicable to the U.S. refugee process," insists Bier.

That, however, hasn't stopped 25 Republican governors — and one Democratic one — from drawing exactly the wrong lessons and issuing defiant statements warning the administration against settling any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees it had previously agreed to admit within their borders.

Ironically, among the governors joining this anti-refugee hysteria is Michigan's Rick Snyder. He's been practically begging the Obama administration for immigrants, including Syrian refugees, to revitalize his own security disaster zone called Detroit, long the murder capital of the country. Yet over the weekend he announced that he was going to suspend the refugee resettlement program — never mind that metro-Detroit's Dearborn is home to the largest Arab population outside of Middle East whose residents, despite occasional scare mongering by official reports, have never committed  an act of terrorism.

But if Detroit's Arabs are a non-threat, Syrian refugees are likely to be even more so. Indeed, ISIS would have to be even dumber than it is to try and sneak into the United States using refugees as a conduit. They are subjected to the most intensive vetting process compared to virtually any other immigrant group for two reasons:

One, they are refugees and hence looking for permanent residency which is an inherently a difficult and cumbersome process with intense background checks. (It would be far easier for ISIS to follow the example of 9/11 hijackers and try and obtain temporary student or business visas for their foot soldiers, although even that is not so easy to pull off either. Better yet it could avoid all scrutiny by paying human coyotes to smuggle them in.)

And two, they are Syrians.

Contrary to asylum seekers who show up at America's doorstep like the Latin American minors fleeing violence, refugees need a referring agency — generally the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but sometimes the U.S. embassy or an NGO — to refer them to America. This agency has to perform its own screening before recommending someone. Just this stage takes four to 10 months and the UNHCR usually refers less than 1 percent of the applications it receives.

After that, even refugees from non-terrorist countries are lucky if they can get a clearance from American officials in a year.

But because Syrians are coming from ISIS land they are subjected to a special third-degree that can take another two to three years. As Vox's Dara Lind points out, they have to prove a negative and show that they are not affiliated with any terrorist group. Until recently, if they had any contact whatsoever with a jihadi no matter how unknowing or innocuous — which is virtually unavoidable if your hometown has been overrun by terrorists — they were denied admissions. There have been cases when folks have been rejected because they might have served a jihadi who showed up at their sandwich shop.

Setting that aside, after a UN referral, a refugee still has a dozen or so other hurdles to cross. These include, as per USCIS website

  • A Security Clearance Process that involves the State Department running the names of all the refugees referred through a standard CLASS (Consular Lookout and Support System) name check. In addition, enhanced interagency security checks were phased in beginning in 2008 and applied to all refugee applicants by 2010.
  • Certain refugees undergo an additional security review called a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). These cases require a positive SAO clearance from a number of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies in order to continue the resettlement process.
  • Refugees who meet the minimum age requirement have their fingerprints and photograph taken by a trained U.S. government employee. The fingerprints are then checked against various U.S. government databases and information on any matches is reviewed by DHS.
  • All refugee applicants are interviewed by an officer from DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) who may travel to the country of asylum to conduct a detailed, face-to- face interview with each refugee applicant. Based on the information in the refugee's case file and on the interview, the DHS officer will determine if the individual qualifies as a refugee and is admissible under U.S. law.
  • If the USCIS officer finds that the individual qualifies as a refugee and meets other U.S. admission criteria, the officer will conditionally approve the refugee's application for resettlement and submit it to the U.S. Department of State for final processing.
  • If approved, the refugee will be required to undergo medical screening conducted by the International Organization for Migration or a physician designated by the U.S. Embassy.
  • Prior to departure to the U.S., a second interagency check is conducted for most refugees to check for any new information.
  • Upon arrival at one of five U.S. airports designated as ports of entry for refugee admissions, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will review the refugee documentation and conduct additional security check.

As all of this shows, the process ain't no stroll in the park and at the end of it lies rejection for the vast majority of applicants. To think that ISIS agents will subject themselves to it only to face either rejection or detection or both is patently absurd.

Simply shutting down the program won't stop jihadis from finding their way to the United States. It's their innocent victims who'll suffer. This won't make America, the land of the brave and free, any safer — just a whole lot more ashamed of itself when the fear abates and sanity returns.