Concerns about terrorists hiding among the flood of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terror attacks have more than a dozen governors around the country, including Florida’s Rick Scott, promising to close their states to any of the refugees.
President Obama plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming fiscal year. But the governors seized on a Syrian passport found near one of the suicide bombers who attacked Paris on Friday, which was later revealed to be a fake, as a reason to keep the refugees out.
“Until I can be assured that all potential refugees from Syria have no ties to terrorist organizations, I am requesting that the State Department not resettle any Syrian refugees in South Carolina,” South Carolina Gov. Gov. Nikki Haley wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that reflected broad security concerns among many governors.
But those governors may be making promises they can’t keep: several experts in immigration and constitutional law told CBS News that states are not empowered to reject immigrants granted refugee status by the United States.
“Immigration law is federal,” explained Richard Primus, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan law school. “States are not supposed to engage in foreign relations or in diplomacy. States can do things that make themselves attractive or unattractive as destinations for immigrants….But [the state of Michigan] could not, for example, say, ‘We disapprove of the government of Myanmar, and so we boycott Myanmar as Michigan.’ That’s the federal government’s job, and when states have attempted to do things like that, the courts have said, ‘No way.”
President Barack Obama said Monday he remains committed to taking in Syrians, as long as they are vetted.
“As president, my first priority is the safety of the American people, and that’s why even as we accept more refugees, including Syrians, we do so only after subjecting them to rigorous screening and security checks,” he said during a press conference in Turkey after the G-20 summit.
Obama said people should “remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves.”
“That’s what they’re fleeing,” he continued. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”
Since the 9/11 attacks there has been almost 800,000 legal immigrants come to the United States through the vetting process. None of those 800,000 has committed an act of terrorism, according to numerous experts; our biggest threat comes from our border with Canada. There are thousands of miles of un protected easily accessible crossing points and that is where most terrorist experts feel we are most vulnerable
Meanwhile, any potential refugees who want to come to the United States must first apply for asylum through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the international body in charge of protecting and assisting refugees.
The decision on all immigration falls under the powers of the President of the United States and there is an extensive vetting process.
The UNHCR then decides who merits refugee status based on the parameters laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
If it’s demonstrated that the refugee in question meets the above conditions, the applicant may be referred by the UNHRC for resettlement in a third country, such as the United States, where he or she will be given legal resident status and eventually be able to apply for citizenship.
After the UNHCR refers a refugee applicant to the United States, the application is processed by a federally funded Resettlement Support Center, which gathers information about the candidate to prepare for an intensive screening process, which includes an interview, a medical evaluation and an interagency security screening process aimed at ensuring the refugee does not pose a threat to the United States.
The average processing time for refugee applications is 12 to 18 months, but Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information.
Once they’ve completed that part of the process, the refugee is paired with a resettlement agency in the United States to assist in his or her transition to the country. That organization provides support services, such as language and vocational training, as well as monetary assistance for housing and other necessities.
The security process has been focused on the security vetting refugees must go through before they come to the United States, particularly after it was revealed that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks entered Europe through a refugee processing center.
Several federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are involved in the process, which Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner recently called, “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States.”
These agencies use biographical and biometric information about applicants to conduct a background check and make sure applicants really are who they say they are.
There are challenges in the vetting process in Syria and the fact that the United States does not maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in the country, it’s sometimes difficult for U.S. authorities to gather the information they need to thoroughly vet a Syrian applicant.
FBI Director James Comey hit on the issue at a congressional hearing last month, when he told lawmakers, “If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them.”