The Facts Behind Syrian Refugee Resettlement, and Why the Muslim Ban is Ineffective


A few years ago, I interned for a nonprofit based out of Arlington, VA, called the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). Their duties include assisting in refugee resettlement, helping prospective asylees navigate the process, providing resources for immigrants, and advocating for the rights and wellbeing of those people. I learned a lot from my time with them, including how refugee resettlement works, what refugees are like, and that their lives are far from easy when they come to America. When it comes to refugee policy, these past few months have been absolutely maddening. I know I can’t speak to the morals of the conservatives who support this ban – they would write it off as the antics of an emotional snowflake. And despite the post-truth trends and nonsense on social media or elsewhere, I’d like to think that there is some hope for a fact-based conversation about why this ban is wrong.

The Trump Administration’s travel ban, no matter how “revised” it is, is a shortsighted, ineffective, ignorant, inhumane, and a stupid policy. I could not be persuaded to think otherwise with all of the tea in China. There are a lot of things wrong with this travel ban that I could go into, but I have a word count, and so we will focus on one aspect of the ban: refugees. Initially, there was a freeze on all refugees with “Muslim Ban 1.0.” As of June 29th, 2017, all refugees (with some exceptions) are banned for 120 days.

Let’s start with the argument that President Trump and his supporters use: this is necessary to preserve the national security of the Homeland. Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor in the Administration, had repeatedly gone on air during the implementation of Muslim Ban 1.0, citing an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, claiming that 72 people from the then-seven countries covered by the ban had been “implicated in terroristic activity in the United States” from September 12th, 2001 through December 31st, 2014 (a statement PolitiFact analyzed in February and gave it the verdict of “Exaggerates”). In their analysis of both the CIS analysis and Mr. Miller’s statements, PolitiFact noted that not only was the number much lower at 28, but “None of the 72 people was responsible for any terrorist-related deaths in the U.S. — even though roughly 1 million citizens of the seven countries came to the U.S. during this time as refugees, immigrants or on nonimmigrant visas, according to our review of State Department data.”

Okay, you may say, but what about Pulse? Or San Bernardino? Or the Boston Marathon Bombings? Or 9/11? Wouldn’t the travel ban have stopped those from coming to fruition? Well…no. In the case of the Pulse shooting, the shooter was an American citizen, whose father was an immigrant from Afghanistan, which is not on the list of banned countries in either version of the travel ban. In the case of the San Bernardino shootings, Syed Rizwan Farook was an American citizen, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, was Pakistani. Neither had a criminal record, they legally purchased their guns, none were on the Terrorism Watch List, and Pakistan is not included in any of the travel bans. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Tsarnaev brothers were American citizens whose family had come from the North Caucasus region in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, neither of which are covered by the ban. And then lastly, 9/11. 15 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, and the remaining two were from Egypt and Lebanon. And guess what, none of those countries are covered by the travel ban.

It is a common misconception from the right – as well as from those who don’t understand the process – that if a terrorist wanted to sneak into the US, they could do so under the guise of being a refugee, particularly a Syrian refugee. This is complete and utter hogwash. But let’s humor this ridiculous fantasy. Let’s say that an ISIS terrorist forges some documents, makes up a sob story, and begins his journey as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Where does he begin? He can’t just hop on a plane to the US out of Damascus or Istanbul or Amman. Remember: the plan is to pose as a Syrian refugee, so he must take the route of all other refugees. His journey would begin either at a US Embassy (unlikely) or in a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) camp. There, he must formally register as a refugee, if the goal is to resettle into the United States. The UNHCR begins the process by running an extensive background check on the refugee (you can find more information about their portion of the resettlement process here). This is not only to determine if the refugee has a fear of returning due to persecution on a number of grounds, but also to ensure that they are not dealing with a case of fraud by any ill-intentioned individuals or groups. The UNHCR is well aware that fraud is a possibility, so, like many bureaucratic processes, they have safeguards in place.

Assume now, for the sake of Steve Bannon’s nationalistic sensitivities, that the dastardly terrorist lies his way through the background check successfully. His resettlement in any one country is still not guaranteed. UNHCR refers only about 1% of all refugees for resettlement in a third country. The only time resettlement is considered is as a last resort, in case “all efforts to help refugees return home or settle permanently in the country of asylum have failed”, and even then, the refugee does not get to choose where they are resettled, if at all. Again, according to the USCRI, “Family ties, trade skills, professional abilities, language facility, and various other factors are considered by UNHCR when matching a refugee with a resettlement country.” There is no guarantee that a refugee will make it to the US by the time they are processed through UNHCR.

The only way a refugee can be admitted into the US Resettlement Admissions Program (USRAP) is if the UNHCR refers them to the program, or if they are referred by the US Embassy in the country of asylum. In the case of our fictional terrorist, let us assume he is in a UNHCR camp in Jordan, and is somehow (again, highly unlikely) referred to the USRAP. Congratulations, you’re still stuck in the refugee camp while you undergo biometric and biographic security checks! Thankfully, the Trump Administration hasn’t gotten around to deleting this webpage. When a refugee is referred to USRAP, their biometric and biographic information are cross checked with law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ databases – assuming our terrorist has been rather chatty, we can assume that he would have been discovered at this point. Through the entire process, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense are heavily involved in the background check, even more so in the case of Syrian refugees, due to the difficulties presented with verifying information. As of a November 2015 video released by then DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, 23,000 Syrians were referred to the USRAP by the UNHCR. Of those, only about 2,000 had been admitted. After all of this, the refugee will have to be approved after a lengthy adjudication process. This entire process, from start to finish, takes at least a year to reach the point of resettlement.

Then refugees have to be sponsored by a resettlement organization, like USCRI. The refugees are put through a medical screening, an FBI screening of known terrorists and undesirables, and the State Department checks to see if they have been denied a visa in the past. Then, they receive cultural orientation. And after all of this, they finally begin the lengthy process of getting settled into their new community. By this time, the terrorist would have been discovered by the Department of Homeland Security and reported to the proper authorities, if he hadn’t been discovered by someone else. All of which makes this fear of a terrorist hiding as a refugee highly unlikely. For a terrorist, this is the riskiest way of getting caught. ISIS would prefer to spend resources and manpower defending its positions in Iraq and Syria, while undoubtedly working to promote homegrown terrorists, a threat that, is not covered by the Trump Administration’s travel bans.

It is understandable to be scared. That is the goal of terrorism and terrorists. And there are credible security threats posed by these terror groups that should be discussed at length in order to come up with proper counter terrorism solutions. But the next terrorist attack on American soil isn’t going to come from a young woman who was a student in Aleppo, but now works for a Walmart in New Hampshire, nor will it come from the Zkrit family, settled in Pennsylvania with the help of the USCRI. It won’t come from Iranian LGBT and political refugees. It won’t come from Somalis fleeing al-Shabaab or starvation. It won’t come from Burmese Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution and genocide. These refugees, like so many others of different nationalities, religions, political opinions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and backgrounds, all want a safe place to call home. Refugees, like Americans, want a home where they can start over for their children, love freely, play without fear, and pray without being viewed with hatred. Because, at the end of the day, they are human. That is a fact, and it is a fact that we tend to overlook when looking at these issues from an analytical perspective. All the Trump Administration has seen is an other – the other.

President Trump’s travel bans serve no real security purpose and provide no solutions to the real threats we face due to terrorism. The only goal of the travel bans are to divide Americans from the so-called “other.” It is a strategy as old as time, as underhanded as one can go, and it has a horrifying precedent with equally horrifying results. We cannot let fear rule our minds and hearts. The day we do, the day we surrender to fear and to our lesser selves, that is the day that the terrorists will win.

This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of USCRI. 

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