Former INS Commissioners Urge Senate to Reject Bill that would Halt Resettlement of Syrian Refugees

Washington, D.C.—Former Commissioners of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Doris Meissner and James W. Ziglar today urged senators to uphold America’s commitment to protecting the persecuted, particularly Syrian refugees who are fleeing violence and acts of terrorism. The call came in a letter days after the House of Representatives passed legislation that would effectively bar Syrian and Iraqi refugees from resettlement in the United States.

“The U.S. resettlement system includes the most rigorous vetting process applied to any population coming to this country,” wrote Meissner and Ziglar, who served under Democratic and Republican presidents, in today’s letter. “We firmly believe that the United States can protect vulnerable refugees while also keeping Americans safe.”

Human Rights First notes that under the current system, Syrian refugees are more closely vetted than any other group allowed entrance to the United States and undergo a multi-step series of background checks and security screenings. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees first registers refugees, interviews them, takes biometric data and background information. Based on the refugee’s level of vulnerability, and their knowledge of the stringent U.S. screening process, the U.N. agency refers some refugees for consideration by the United States. These refugees—overwhelmingly women and children, torture survivors, and other particularly vulnerable refugees—have been living in Jordan, Turkey, or other frontline refugee-hosting countries for years, struggling to survive. The U.S. government then conducts its own extremely rigorous screening process, including health checks, repeated biometric checks, and several layers of biographical and background screening. Each individual is interviewed, while still abroad, by specially-trained Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers. Multiple agencies are involved, including the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Defense, and U.S. intelligence agencies. DHS has added an additional country-specific layer of enhanced review for Syrian refugee applications, which includes extra screening for national security risks.

Last week former Secretaries of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff sent a letter to President Obama, making clear that the current process for vetting refugees for resettlement in the United States is “thorough and robust and, so long as it if fully implemented and not diluted, it will allow us to safely admit the most vulnerable refugees while protection the American people.” Chertoff served as Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush; Napolitano assumed the role under President Obama. The White House announced that it would veto the bill if Congress passes it.

The American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act would require the secretary of homeland security, the FBI director, and the director of national intelligence to “certify” to 12 congressional committees that each individual refugee applicant from Syria and Iraq is not a security threat. Ziglar and Meissner say this would divert the time of top security officials from key national security priorities, an approach that would “bring the resettlement system, which already moves at a slow pace, to a halt.” Human Rights First notes that officials would have to spend time certifying about 500 individual refugees every week, despite the fact each case is already fully vetted. These delays would decimate the U.S. resettlement process in Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere. The former INS commissioners also note that such legislation “would apply to Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, U.S. government contractors, or other U.S. organizations, and already have been waiting years to be brought to safety.”

The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, with over 60 million people displaced. Over 4 million Syrians have fled their country due to conflict and persecution, and 7.6 million are displaced within Syria in need of humanitarian assistance. Many of these refugees have been stranded for years in neighboring countries where they cannot work or support their families, have little access to education, and lack the level of humanitarian assistance they need. Frontline states and key U.S. allies including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan continue to host the majority of the approximately 4 million refugees who have fled Syria, struggling under the strain of hosting so many refugees.

“Protecting the persecuted and resettling vulnerable refugees are areas that have long enjoyed bipartisan support because they reflect this nation’s core values,” wrote Meissner and Ziglar. “We urge you to support these American values and ensure that the country’s bipartisan commitment to protecting the persecuted is not abandoned.”

For more information contact Corinne Duffy at [email protected] or 202-370-3319.


Published on November 23, 2015


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