The U.S. Record Shows Refugees Are Not a Threat
As Congress and others react to the Obama administration’s announcement that the refugee resettlement program will increase from the current 70,000 level to 85,000 next year and 100,000 in 2017, some are objecting on national security grounds.
It would be a shame if the drive to allow the United States to play an even more meaningful role in a humanitarian protection system that is under severe strain, in part because of the Syrian crisis, were to become embroiled in a debate that is heavy on rhetoric and light on facts.
The reality is this: The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since September 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.
As the more than 4 million refugees who have spilled out of Syria overwhelm neighboring countries and roil Europe, many Americans have been asking what more the United States can and should do to help cope with this crisis. Fewer than 2,000 Syrians have been resettled in this country since the Assad regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests ignited a savage civil war in 2011.
The most common arguments against resettling more Syrian refugees, made by some Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress, is that the resettlement program could be a path for infiltration into the United States by ISIS or other terrorists. But the refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose. Refugees who are selected for resettlement to the United States go through a painstaking, many-layered review before they are accepted. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and national intelligence agencies independently check refugees’ biometric data against security databases. The whole process typically takes 18-24 months, with high hurdles for security clearance.
Once here, refugees are connected with voluntary agencies that help them to settle and become economically self-sufficient in the shortest time possible—a key tenet of the federal resettlement program. Federal funds support those who need assistance for only the first seven or eight months of residence. Most refugee populations in the United States have integrated well, becoming productive residents and, often, citizens who enrich their communities and their new country. From Albert Einstein to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, refugees often give back much more than they take.
The United States is protected by geography from the inflow of asylum seekers who are entering Europe, mainly through Greece and Italy. Almost 600,000 have arrived in Europe so far this year—as many as 1 million may have entered by year’s end. The majority are unquestionably refugees. Germany and other European states have not invited them or agreed in advance to accept them—the refugees have just arrived, after dangerous journeys across the sea and overland. But European states are bound by their international obligations not to return them to danger. The United States, by contrast, has the luxury of choice of which refugees to admit through its resettlement program, from Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. How robustly will it exercise that choice?
After a slow start, Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the United States would admit 85,000 refugees in the fiscal year beginning October 1, including at least 10,000 from Syria. The 85,000 could allow for as many as 20,000-25,000 Syrians if geographic allocations are altered slightly and intake procedures can be streamlined. Most Americans welcome the increase in refugees, according to a recent Pew poll.
Voluntary agencies are calling for admission of 100,000 Syrians alone in FY 2016. There is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a more generous admissions policy for Syrians. But these voices, and the administration, will face an uphill battle with opponents who have not awakened from the nightmare of 9/11, despite all evidence that the refugee resettlement program is not a source of risk.
Two of the three refugees resettled in the United States to be arrested on terrorist charges were plotting to send money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the third to an Islamist organization in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek alone boasted about potential attacks in the United States, but had no credible plans. All were detected by skillful intelligence operations before any plot could be carried out. One Iraqi would-be perpetrator is now serving a life sentence, the other 40 years in prison; the Uzbek is appealing his conviction from prison.
Based on these three cases, some politicians argue against the United States doing its part to help Syrians rebuild their lives in a safe and welcoming country, despite the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have thrived here. The record of the U.S. refugee resettlement program does not support the fear of security threats. This record is cause not for complacency but for confidence.
Editor's note: This commentary was updated on October 7, 2015 to include the case of a resettled refugee from Uzbekistan, who had been described in many media accounts as an asylum seeker.