Pamela Dockins, Nike Ching
President Barack Obama’s administration is defending plans to admit thousands of Syrian refugees to the United States this year, in the wake of blowback from lawmakers, governors and presidential candidates who say the plan carries too much of a security risk.
In a briefing Tuesday, senior administration officials said refugees interested in resettling in the United States undergo a rigorous screening and security vetting process.
They said Syrian refugees faced additional forms of security screening.
Concerns were raised about the U.S. plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees following the discovery that one of the terrorists involved in Friday’s bloodshed in Paris had slipped into Europe with a wave of Syrian migrants.
A senior administration official responded that many Syrian refugees are fleeing the same type of “senseless violence” that occurred in Paris.
“Slamming the door in their face would be a betrayal of our own values,” the official said.
Paris Attacks Heighten Criticism of U.S. Program
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a pause in the U.S. acceptance of Syrian refugees, saying, “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than sorry.”
More than two dozen U.S. governors have indicated they may try to stop Syrian refugees from resettling in their states.
“When you know that some of the people coming from that region have the potential to be terrorists, we can’t take a chance of that,” said Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.
Presidential candidates, including Republican Ted Cruz, have also weighed in on the issue. Cruz called the Obama administration’s plan to bring in thousands of Syrian Muslims “absolute lunacy.”
A senior administration said many of the concerns raised by lawmakers appeared to be based on either their unfamiliarity with the U.S. resettlement program or misinformation.
“I find that I am correcting a lot of false information that has been passed to them from people who are unfamiliar with the program,” the official said.
Administration officials said efforts are underway to reach out to lawmakers and governors to provide more information about the U.S. program.
Officials say the U.S. refugee admissions process takes 18 to 24 months, and includes multi-agency screenings, background checks and criminal records checks. The bulk of the screenings process takes place outside of the United States, before there is a decision on whether the refugee can travel into the country.
A senior administration official said the enhanced screening for Syrian refugees included a review of “certain cases” with national security indicators to check for fraud. As an example, the official said, U.S. intelligence officials would check to see if the refugee’s story about military aggression in Syria matched up with conditions reported in Syria during that time period.
An administration official said, thus far, about half the Syrians brought to the United States have been children.
The official said a quarter were adults over the age of 60 and only about two-percent were “single males of combat age.”
The administration remains “steadfastly committed” to Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrians this fiscal year, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“We think we can do this safely and in a way that represents the best of American values,” he added.
Humanitarian Groups Defend Syrian Refugees
On Tuesday, group of U.S.-based humanitarian and resettlement leaders also responded to the growing criticism of Syrians resettling in the United States.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the United States had resettled Syrians during the past few years without “any incidents.”
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services president Linda Hartke questioned the legality of any gubernatorial moves to block refugees from certain states.
“Some of the actions that maybe considered by governors, of not providing social services,” said Hartke, could “end up being challenged in court.”
The potential state efforts have also drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch.
“The governors’ announcements amount to fear-mongering attempts to block Syrians from joining the generous religious groups and communities who step forward to welcome them,” said the group’s Alison Parker.