http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/images/size340/Migrants_1_in_Europe_Credit_Catholic_Relief_Services_Sean_Callahan_CNA_10_21_15.jpgWashington D.C., Dec 21, 2015 / 06:33 am (CNA).- As the U.S. plans to increase its intake of Syrian refugees to 10,000 next year, Americans – including Catholics – are trying to balance national security concerns with compassion for the refugees.
“Americans need to understand that responding to a core tenant of our faith to provide a compassion and care to suffering people like Syrian refugees and maintaining national security are not mutually exclusive – it is not an either or proposition,” said Dr. Susan Weishar, a migration fellow at the Jesuit Social Research Institute who directed immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 14 years.
“A rigorous, multi-layered, and lengthy vetting and security clearance procedure is in place to screen refugees,” she said in a statement to CNA. “As the leader of the free world, the wealthiest democracy on the planet – the U.S. must not turn its back on the Syrian refugees.”
However, there are intelligence gaps that could jeopardize the vetting process for refugees, warned Seth G. Jones, who directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.
“I actually think the U.S. needs better intel collection in Syria. So I would actually push more resources to setting up a technical architecture in Syria, and then resources for human collection in Syria,” he told CNA.
An arduous screening process
The Obama administration has announced its plan to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. next year. The U.S. has only accepted around 2,000 Syrian refugees total since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, and 1,682 of those were in fiscal year 2015.
A spokesperson for the State Department acknowledged at a Nov. 23 daily press briefing that “certainly, we’re going to have to ramp up our personnel in order to process these because it’s such a rigorous and long process to get these people processed and placed.”
Many Americans have expressed deep concerns about terrorists and extremists infiltrating the resettlement program, especially after Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris killed 130 and injured several hundred. Several of the attackers are believed to have entered Europe through Greece, though it is not certain if they entered as refugees.
In the wake of the attacks, U.S. Catholic bishops have asked Americans not to scapegoat all Syrian refugees as possible terrorists and to remember their dire humanitarian plight.
“These refugees are fleeing terror themselves – violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, the auxiliary bishop of Seattle who chairs the bishops’ committee on migration, on Nov. 17 at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ fall general assembly.
Over 30 governors have announced their refusal to accept Syrian refugees in their states. The House passed a bill last week to pause the resettlement program for refugees from Iraq and Syria until intelligence agencies could verify their status. Forty-seven Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the bill.
Debate on the policy hinges on whether the resettlement process is itself secure, and whether an increase to 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016 will compromise security standards.
Less than one percent of refugees worldwide are actually resettled. Most remain near their countries of origin, hoping to return home. And of this tiny percentage who are resettled elsewhere, a small portion are sent to the U.S.
For these, priority is given to the most vulnerable persons like victims of torture, female-headed households, or those with severe and pressing medical needs.
There are two ways for a refugee to enter the U.S.: travel to the border and claim asylum upon arrival, or through the refugee resettlement process. The United Nations ultimately determines where refugees will be resettled based on the urgency of their case and where they currently have family.
If they are picked for the U.S., they still must undergo a rigorous security check. It is an arduous 21-step process of interviews and background checks conducted across multiple government agencies that takes 18 to 24 months to complete.
The State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Simon Henshaw, called it “the most intensive security screening of any travelers to the United States” in a Nov. 19 special briefing.
The process includes biometric and biographic checks, fingerprinting against FBI databases, and one-on-one interviews with the Department of Homeland Security, which has the discretion to deny admission to refugees on national security grounds. Syrian refugees are also subject to “additional screening,” the State Department has claimed.
Refugees are “accompanied by resettlement agencies every step of the way,” Weishar said, and are assigned a case manager who is “very hands-on, client-centered.”
“Since refugees go through several interviews, they have to be consistent in their answers,” said Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at a Nov. 23 Capitol Hill briefing on refugee vetting and resettlement.
“If there’s inconsistencies, then it’s a red flag. So if they don’t say the same thing to the same question,” he added, “then they’re knocked out [of the process] until something else can be confirmed.”