Muslim refugees and national security

Despite stringent screening of all refugees, some Americans are concerned about national security.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A Syrian refugee holds onto his daughter as he waits to cross into Turkey at Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 15, 2015.

At the end of August, the US met President Obama’s goal of taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees within a year. The program has drawn attention to broader US policies on refugees.

How does the United States decide which refugees get admitted?

The terms “immigrant” and “refugee” are sometimes used interchangeably. But refugees must prove that they were forced to leave their country because of  “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” explains the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

At the end of last year, 21.3 million refugees, including 4.9 million Syrians, were seeking relocation worldwide, according to the UN. But not even 1 percent of these refugees will successfully relocate to the US. Each year the US president sets a refugee quota in consultation with Congress, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. The US quota was set at 70,000 refugees for the past three years, but Secretary of State John Kerry raised the ceiling to 85,000 refugees for fiscal year 2016.

Once the quota is determined, potential refugees must go through an intensive vetting process. In addition to meeting the UN’s definition of fear of persecution, refugees must pass a series of security screenings, including an in-person interview, biometric checks, and cross-checks with international watchlists.

According to the State Department, the usual vetting time for a refugee is 18 to 24 months.

Are the rules different for individuals from Muslim countries?

In short, no. Although certain groups of refugees can be subject to more intensive screening processes, there are not religious criteria. As Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council explains, the vetting process can be population- or country-specific depending on various security concerns.

For example, DHS’s US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) conducts an “enhanced review” for all Syrian cases before scheduling an interview. And during the Iraq War, all Iraqi refugees were additionally reviewed to confirm that they never fought against US forces.

What policy changes are advocated by the presidential candidates?

Put simply, Donald Trump plans to lower refugee quotas and Hillary Clinton plans to raise them.

At the Republican National Convention in July, Mr. Trump said, “There’s no way to screen these [Syrian] refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from. I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people.” In addition to reducing the overall refugee quotas and “suspending the Syrian refugee program,” he has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, whether or not they are refugees.

Mrs. Clinton would like to increase the Syrian refugee quota from 10,000 to 65,000. “It would be a cruel irony indeed if ISIS can force families from their homes and then also prevent them from finding new ones,” she said in a December 2015 speech. “So after rigorous screening, we should welcome families fleeing Syria.” She has commended the State Department’s current screening process and says the US “has to do more” as a world leader to alleviate the refugee crisis.

What are the concerns about increasing the flow of Muslim refugees?

Some worry that refugees are expensive. Trump claims that Clinton’s higher quota would cost the US billions of dollars in schooling, housing, welfare benefits, and more. Some voters also fear that an influx of refugees could strain the US job market, increasing unemployment rates among Americans. However, Oxford Economics has forecast a different scenario for Germany, which has taken in far more refugees. The advisory firm predicts a 0.6 percent increase in that country’s gross domestic product by 2020 because of the growing population. 

Still, the main concern surrounding Muslim refugees in the US has to do with national security. Trump and others cite higher crime rates in Germany as well as frequent terrorist acts in the Western world since the refugee crisis began. But according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington, just three refugees of the 784,000 resettled in the US since 9/11 have been arrested for alleged terrorist-related activities. Also, security officials point out that refugees typically experience the most extensive security screenings of any traveler to the US.

“[T]he refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose,” writes MPI senior fellow Kathleen Newland on the organization’s website, due to “high hurdles for security clearance.”

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