PolitiFact Sheet: 5 questions about Syrian refugees

Eleven-year-old Omran Wawieh, a refugee from Syria, is staying with parents and siblings at a motel in Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2015. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Eleven-year-old Omran Wawieh, a refugee from Syria, is staying with parents and siblings at a motel in Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2015. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees has become an urgent debate in the days since the terror attacks in Paris. At least 30 governors have said they’re against letting refugees into their states because of fears that terrorists could hide among those seeking political asylum.

Civilians are fleeing Syria — where more than 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict — by the thousands. Some have called their migration the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

The unrest began in 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring. Assad’s regime responded with violence, and the country spiraled into a civil war. But it isn’t just pro-Assad vs. anti-Assad groups. There are several sects fighting one another, one of which is the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Some have questioned whether one of the ISIS terrorists who participated in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks was a Syrian refugee who resettled in Europe. That fact remains unconfirmed; authorities are still investigating. The six Paris attackers identified so far were French and Belgian nationals. Nonetheless, many American politicians are concerned that allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the United States would leave the country vulnerable.

There are a lot of questions about Syrian refugees coming to the United States. Here are some answers.

How many Syrian refugees are already in the United States?

Just over 1,800 refugees have been admitted to the United States since the civil war in Syria began. They have been placed in about 35 states, according to a New York Times analysis.

For comparison, Germany has accepted 38,500 Syrian refugees and Canada has accepted 36,300 since 2013.

The United States admitted only a tiny amount of refugees during the first three years of the civil war — about 30 per year. But in the fiscal year that ended in September 2014, the number of admitted Syrian refugees bumped up to 105. And in the most recent year, ending in September 2015, the United States admitted 1,682.  

Of the Syrian refugees admitted so far, half are children, according to administration officials. The group is about 50/50 men and women, and about 2 percent are single men of combat age.

How many has Obama said we would accept?

Next year, the Obama administration plans to increase the number of admitted Syrian refugees almost six-fold to at least 10,000.

For a sense of proportion, there are about 4.3 million U.N.-registered refugees who have fled Syria. French President Francois Hollande said in the days after the attack that his country will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.

A few politicians and pundits have claimed that the administration wants to bring in as many as 250,000 Syrian refugees. That number has no basis in fact.

Some reports seems to confuse the number of Syrian refugees the United States will accept with the number of worldwide refugees the United States will accept. Secretary of State John Kerry has said the United States will accept up to 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016 — up from 70,000 this year — and around 100,000 in fiscal year 2017. Again, this is the total number of refugees from all over the world.

Do the refugees get background checks?

The refugees admissions program, created in 1980 and retooled after 9/11, does actually perform background checks on all refugees, to the extent possible.

Before refugees face U.S. screening, they must get a referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or occasionally a U.S. embassy or another NGO). The UN refers about 1 percent of refugees for resettlement through its own vetting process, which takes four to 10 months. During that process, UN officials decide if people actually qualify as refugees, if they require resettlement, and which country would accept them.

Once the cases are passed along to the United States, the refugees undergo security clearances. Their names, biographical information and fingerprints are run through federal terrorism and criminal databases. Meanwhile, the refugees are interviewed by Department of Homeland Security officials. If approved, they then undergo a medical screening, a match with sponsor agencies, "cultural orientation" classes and one final security clearance.

Syrian refugees in particular must clear one additional hurdle. Their documents are placed under extra scrutiny and cross-referenced with classified and unclassified information.

The process typically takes one to two years or longer and happens before a refugee ever gets onto American soil.

Can governors keep refugees out?

Experts say governors don’t have the authority to ban refugees from their states outright.

The federal government has sole power over immigration decisions, and the refugee system is included under that umbrella. This has been affirmed by Supreme Court decisions as recently as 2012.

The Refugee Act of 1980 says the federal government is expected "to the maximum extent possible" take states’ concerns into account when resettling refugees. But there are no consequences if the federal government ignores the states, said Steve Vladeck, a professor of national security law at American University, writing at the Lawfare blog.

States also can’t bar people from moving between states. The 14th Amendment, as well as equal protection laws in individual states, prevents states from barring entry to people based on their nationality. In the 1915 Supreme Court case Truax v. Raich, the justices concluded that state governments cannot impose onerous conditions on admitted immigrants, such as denying them access to a state.

"No state can tell legal immigrants where they can live," said Andrew Schoenholtz, director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. "They’re entitled to live anywhere."

A number of the governors who have said they will not accept refugees have acknowledged that they do not have a legal avenue to make such a demand. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for example, wrote in a letter to Congress, "It is our understanding that the state does not have the authority to prevent the federal government from funding the relocation of these Syrian refugees to Florida even without state support."

Is the screening process thorough enough?

There are undoubtedly challenges to screening refugees from conflict zones like Syria. Intelligence and national security officials have noted the paucity of data.

The head of the National Counterterrorism Center told Congress in October that the intelligence in Syria is "not as rich as we would like it to be," while FBI Director James Comey told Congress there are "gaps" in data availability.

Challenges and gaps, however, don’t translate into "no ability" to vet at all.

"No system is foolproof. If we really wanted a foolproof system, we would shut down immigration entirely," said David Martin, a University of Virginia professor who’s previously held posts at DHS and the State Department. "The alarm is way overblown."

According to the State Department, Syrians tend to have more identity documents than other refugee groups around the world, and the reasons they give for missing documents (a bomb dropping on their house) can be verified.

Experts also warned against conflating the European vetting process, which is extremely chaotic, with the process used by the United States.

In the United States, very few resettled refugees — three since 9/11, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker — have been implicated in terrorist situations. Daryl Grisgraber of Refugees International pointed out that the Tsarnaevs came to the United States as children from Chechnya and applied for asylum, but were radicalized here.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any traveler category to the United States. So for ISIS to take advantage of the refugee program "makes no operational sense," said Anne Speckhard, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University.

"Given how easy it is to send a European extremist to the U.S. via Europe, why would an ISIS guy in Syria wait the three years it takes to get refugee status?" she said.