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US Lawmakers Question Refugee Screening

FILE - Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, says that “if we cannot guarantee the vetting of these refugees, it would be irresponsible for us to promote it.”

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed concern that terrorists posing as Syrian refugees could slip into the country.

“With more and more refugees seeking to reach Europe from Syria and its neighbors, there will be of course those seeking to take advantage,” Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee meeting where lawmakers heard from U.S. immigration and aid officials.

“If we cannot guarantee the vetting of these refugees, it would be irresponsible for us to promote it,” the Florida Republican said.

The immigration officials testified that the United States has the best possible security screening procedures in place to process the thousands of Syrian refugees waiting for resettlement.

They told lawmakers that the first step in the resettlement process is determining refugee status based on a legal definition of a well-founded fear of persecution. Then agencies seek to resettle the most vulnerable of refugees, including widows, orphaned children and the sick. All refugees undergo security screening before they are allowed into the United States.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, questioned how the United States classifies refugees as part of its screening. He expressed concern that many would-be immigrants appeared to be young men — “military-age men who, if they are against radical Islam, should be fighting radical Islam.”

Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told the subcommittee that about 2 percent of the Syrian refugees taken in by the United States last year were young men, many of whom had families and who “had terrible things done to them.”

“I think the reason they’re coming is because they’ve lost hope of getting an education or earning a living,” Richard said.

Background checks

Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said later that his agency compares the biographical information of refugees with various law enforcement and intelligence databases to check for terrorist and illegal activity. USCIS officers train for eight days to gain knowledge of the situation on the ground in Syria that allows them to conduct security screening with refugees seeking resettlement in the United States.

“There’s a lot of work that’s done by the State Department and by us in gathering information about country conditions so that we understand in great depth what’s going on in those countries from a military standpoint, from a social standpoint,” Rodriguez told VOA.

International aid agencies have repeatedly pointed to resettlement as a leading solution to the migrant crisis and offered ways of easing the complicated and lengthy process.

“Already, refugees receive more scrutiny than other visitors to the U.S., so there are ways of speeding up those kinds of background checks by doing the work on the ground in the first place to identify those who are most vulnerable and presumably would pose the least amount of risk to the country,” said David Fray, vice president of advocacy for CARE International.

Earlier Tuesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres downplayed security concerns, saying that if potential terrorists wanted to pose as refugees “to enter the United States, the more stupid thing would be to apply for resettlement.”

Half of all Syrians have been killed or displaced from their homes because of the conflict that began in 2011. The U.S. has contributed $4.5 billion in direct aid and through U.N. appeals to help address the Syrian humanitarian crisis. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that aid reaches 5 million Syrians each month.