The Politics of US series: Muslim refugees and national security

Fifth in a 10-part weekly series. The Politics of US looks at polarizing topics to help deepen understanding of the issues – and respect for those with differing views. This installment explores whether the US is striking the right balance between security and liberty in vetting Muslim refugees.

Courtesy of Matt Zeller
Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter for the US military, sits atop an armored Hummer in this file photo.
Follow us on Twitter @CSM_politics. Review the previous four installments, from guns to race, here.
In this week's edition:
  1. Cover story: The Muslim refugee who saved an American soldier
  2. By the numbers: Christian refugees outnumbered Muslim refugees in the US before 2016
  3. Civics 101: How the US vets Syrian refugees
  4. The candidates: Where they stand on refugees and national security
  5. Gallery: Eight faces of ISIS in America 
  6. Briefing: Muslim refugees and the United States
  7. Engage: Join in on a civil conversation, start discussions in your classroom, and see perspectives from different sides. 
  8. Our picks: "Why the US can help 12 times more Syrians if it doesn't admit any" – and more 

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The Muslim refugee who saved an American soldier

By Anna Mulrine Grobe, Staff writer

Story Hinckley/Staff

Knocked out by enemy mortar rounds, 1st Lt. Matt Zeller had just regained consciousness when the fire drew closer. He got his bearings; he was literally in an empty grave.

“I thought, ‘I’m never going to get married, or have kids, and my parents are about to get the worst phone call of their lives,’ ” recalls Zeller, who had only been in Afghanistan for 10 days. “I freely admit to being terrified.”

And he didn’t even know that two enemy fighters were sneaking up behind him.

Suddenly, AK-47 gunfire rang out.

An Afghan interpreter for US forces, Janis Shinwari, had just saved his life.

It was a moment that bonded them together, and marked the beginning of Shinwari’s journey to America.

Shinwari’s story is unusual. But it also serves as a powerful test of whether America is striking the right balance between security and liberty.

Zeller, whose family has fought in every American war since the Revolution, had no doubt about where he stood on that question. His Afghan friend deserved to be a US citizen. And he was not about to take no for an answer.

Read more 

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Jacob Turcotte and Story Hinckley/Staff

Also see the New York Times' heat map of where Syrian refugees have been placed within the US.

San Diego, for example, has accepted more Syrian refugees since 2012 than any other city. And Boise, Idaho has accepted more refugees than Los Angeles and New York combined. 

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CIVICS 101: How the US vets Syrian refugees

By Christa Case Bryant, Staff writer

Last year, President Obama set a goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees. He exceeded that by 25 percent.

When the 2016 fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, some 12,587 Syrians had been admitted to the United States – more than seven times the number who came in FY2015. That’s according to a report from the Refugee Processing Center, an online database used by the State Department to track total arrivals.

Donald Trump has claimed that there is no vetting process for Syrian refugees, or at least not a robust enough one to guarantee against infiltration by potential terrorists.

In fact, the Obama administration’s vetting is quite extensive.

But there is a significant caveat: US intelligence agencies have very few records or intel to cross-check applicants against, since Syria is in such disarray.

“The concern in Syria is that we don’t have systems in places on the ground to collect information to vet,” Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Michael Steinbach told Congress last year. “You’re talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure, so to speak. So all of the datasets – the police, the intel services – that normally you would go to to seek information doesn’t exist.”

Read more

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THE CANDIDATES: Where they stand on refugees and national security 

We encourage you to contact the Monitor on Twitter @csm_politics or by email if you can improve our chart!

Story Hinckley/Staff

Sources: Politifact, CBS News, OnTheIssues, Time, The Washington Post,,, Daily Kos, RI Future, the Hillary Clinton campaign website, Politico

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GALLERY: Eight Faces of ISIS in America

Christine Cornell
This courtroom sketch shows Ali Saleh appearing in Brooklyn federal court in New York in September.

Ali Saleh really, really, really wanted to go to the Middle East.

Over the course of a few days in July and August, the 22-year-old Queens resident traveled from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to airports in Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; and Indianapolis – all in an attempt to be allowed to board a flight to Cairo. According to an FBI affidavit filed in court, Mr. Saleh told federal agents that he wanted to go to Egypt for tourism, to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and to Yemen to visit relatives. The agents weren’t buying it.

Read more 

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BRIEFING: Muslim refugees and 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 United States 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.

Q: Are the acceptance rules different for refugees 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 conducts an “enhanced review” of 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.

Read more 

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ENGAGE: Living Room Conversations and

Why is there so much division over the question of accepting refugees? Let's better understand different perspectives and each other so we can move forward together. Here are some tools and links to help.

•  •  •

OUR PICKS: Recommended reading and viewing

1. "Hamsa," a 20-minute documentary on a Syrian family’s relocation to rural Germany

Hamsa, a mother from Syria, talks about the moment their boat started to sink – and her decision to jump overboard to lighten the boat’s load in the hope her children would survive. And what happened next.

2. “Refugees Encounter a Foreign World: Welcome," by The New York Times

Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world’s most pressing problems. Their country allows them a rare power and responsibility: They can band together in small groups and personally resettle – essentially adopt – a refugee family. In Toronto alone, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, book club members, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands, but the groups have many more extended members.

3. "Dear President Obama: My state won’t accept Syrian refugees," a letter by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott 

Given the tragic attack in Paris and the threats we have already seen in Texas, coupled with the FBI director’s acknowledgment that we do not have the information necessary to effectively vet Syrian nationals, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees – any one of whom could be connected to terrorism – being resettled in Texas.

4. "Why the US can help 12 times more Syrians if it doesn’t admit any," by Mark Krikorian, testimony before Congress

During last weekend's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton said that the United States should spend 'whatever resources it takes' to property screen Syrian refugees before they are resettled in the United States. This is a common-sense demand that virtually all Americans would agree with.... But this misses the point. The problem with trying to screen candidates for resettlements from Syria – or any other failed state, such as Somalia, Libya, Yemen, or Afghanistan – is not a lack of resources or commitment. The problem is that it cannot be done.

5. “Person of the year: Chancellor of the Free World,” by TIME Magazine

In late summer, Merkel’s government threw open Germany’s doors to a pressing throng of refugees and migrants; a total of 1 million asylum seekers are expected in the country by the end of December. It was an audacious act that, in a single motion, threatened both to redeem Europe and endanger it, testing the resilience of an alliance formed to avoid repeating the kind of violence tearing asunder the Middle East by working together.

Part 1How doomsday Muslim cult is turning kids against parents 
Part 2One Virginia teen's journey from ISIS rock star to incarceration 
Part 3FBI tactics to unearth ISIS recruits: effective or entrapment?
Part 4What draws women to ISIS
Part 5: To turn tables on ISIS at home, start asking unsettling questions
Part 6: How to save kids from ISIS? Start with mom.

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