By Greg Felder
The terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino sparked a widespread debate on how the United States should handle refugees, particularly those fleeing from Syria. But of the 4.5 million Syrians who have left their country in search of protection, the United States has only resettled 2,647.
Each refugee must go through a rigorous vetting process before being accepted for resettlement. Those concerned that sheltering Syrian refugees threatens U.S. national security should take note of the recent letter to Congress from top national security leaders, including Leon Panetta, Henry Kissinger, General David Petraeus (Ret.), and more. They argue that the United States can both thoroughly screen refugees and provide protection to the most vulnerable.
The chances of an extremist slipping through are slim to none. ‘‘It’s extremely difficult to get into the United States as a refugee—the odds of winning the Powerball are probably better,’’ said David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, in a recent New York Times article detailing the extensive refugee admissions process.
Before even starting the U.S. resettlement process, refugees must first go through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to receive legal refugee status. There they undergo biometric screening and detailed in-person interviews that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. The UNHCR then only advocates for the most vulnerable 10 percent, which are usually women, families with young children, or victims of torture.
The other 90 percent are rejected and may either go home (often not an option, especially for Syrians) or remain in their host country, many of which do not allow them to work and offer few resources. Of the 20 million refugees worldwide today, less than one percent will be resettled. The United States admits about half of that one percent, but only after they pass through another intensive screening process.
The U.S. process is already more difficult for Syrians because of an extra step called the Enhanced Syrian Review. Under this process, each Syrian case is selected through the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate office. In addition to the enhanced review, they are also screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department, and United States Customs and Border Protection, as are refugees from all other countries.
With these highly selective and time-consuming screenings, many refugees never receive the protection they left home to find. Instead, they are either stuck in the middle of the process or are denied resettlement with nowhere to go. President Obama vowed to take in at least 10,000 more Syrians by October, but that number seems small relative to the 1.9 million Syrians in Turkey, the 800,000 Germany committed to accepting this year, and the 65,000 already admitted into Sweden.
The United States should exhibit global leadership in the refugee crisis by raising the overall resettlement ceiling to 200,0000 and committing to resettling 100,000 Syrians. With enough resources and personnel, the process could be significantly accelerated without sacrificing security, as the group of 20 national security leaders reminded Congress. This would also ease the burdens of our already strained allies like Jordan and Turkey who are hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees.
But perhaps most importantly, protecting vulnerable Syrians fleeing violence and persecution would send the message that the United States remains a beacon of hope and freedom to all.