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During Tuesday’s debate in the North Carolina governor’s race, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory repeated a questionable claim from the realm of national politics when defending his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Seven North Carolina cities and towns have received several hundred Syrian refugees since 2014. In total across the country, the U.S. recently took in its 10,000th refugee from the war-torn nation.
In the debate, McCrory said we don’t know anything about these newcomers.
Trump has previously made the False claim that there is "no system to vet" refugees. Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson made a similar Mostly False claim that "there is currently no ability to vet these people."
The difference between the two claims was that Trump said there’s no system for vetting refugees, and Carson said we don’t have the ability to vet them. There is certainly a system: It has been in place since 1980 and has been tweaked several times since 9/11.
Carson’s claim had a tiny bit more truth to it than Trump’s did because it can be difficult to track down every bit of information about every Syrian refugee, given the violence and destruction there.
So where did McCrory land with his own claim? Let’s take a look at the whole thing.
Debate moderator Chuck Todd was pressing McCrory and his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper, about their parties’ presidential candidates. He asked McCrory if Trump was a role model. You can watch the entire exchange here.
McCrory said Trump "does stand strong on certain issues that need to be said, especially from outside Washington, D.C. The Syrian refugee situation is a disaster. I personally talked to the FBI – one of the top leaders of the FBI – and they kind of laughed when they said they’re checking the backgrounds of the Syrian refugees. No, they aren’t. There’s no embassy to check. There’s no qualifications. So when Hillary Clinton says they’re doing a vetting process of these Syrian refugees coming into our state, the FBI is not even being told where they are."
McCrory’s claim that "no, they aren’t" being vetted is in line with Carson’s Mostly False claim that we don’t have the ability to check the backgrounds of these refugees.
And his claim that "the FBI is not even being told where they are" reminds us of a Mostly False claim by Sen. Ted Cruz that "the head of the FBI has told Congress they cannot vet those refugees."
McCrory said at the debate there’s no embassy to help with background checks. But the U.S. does have an embassy in Syria. The Syrian government also had an embassy in the U.S. until 2014, when the U.S. suspended it and began recognizing diplomats for the rebels instead.
Regardless, embassies are rarely the first point of contact for refugees. The initial vetting is almost always handled by United Nations workers. That process takes four to 10 months.
If refugees pass the U.N. checks and are referred to the U.S., they face additional scrutiny from the FBI and other federal agencies – including in-person interviews, medical screenings and background checks. If they pass they are matched with sponsors, begin taking "cultural orientation" classes and undergo a final security clearance. Then they’re allowed to come to the United States.
And that’s just the normal process for refugees from anywhere in the world. Syrian refugees undergo an additional layer of security checks, using classified information. The process typically takes one to two years or longer. The State Department says about half are approved.
The system certainly isn’t perfect, since many refugees have fled violence hastily, without all their papers. Officials have also said a lack of U.S. troops on the ground means our knowledge of local terrorists isn’t as complete as in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have also sent thousands of refugees to the U.S.
"If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data," FBI Director James Comey told Congress in 2015. "I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this."
But few Syrian refugees fit the typical profile of a terrorist or criminal – only about 2 percent resettled in the U.S. have been young adult men, according to a Washington Post article from 2015. Half have been children, and another quarter have been older than 60.
Including the 10,000 Syrian refugees now here, the United States still had almost twice as many refugees a decade ago, under President George W. Bush. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the United States peaked in 2006 at 970,000 people. In 2015, there were 560,000.
We’re not sure why an FBI official might have told McCrory that the agency "is not even being told where they are," but we can fill the governor in.
North Carolina is one of the top states for Syrian refugees. Only Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas have taken in more.
As of August North Carolina had 430, according to the conservative group Federation for American Immigration Reform.
That group, citing data from the federal government, says there are 102 Syrian refugees in High Point, 83 in Raleigh, 70 in Charlotte, 63 in Durham, 61 in Greensboro, 48 in Winston-Salem and three in New Bern.
The FBI does not continue automatically tracking the movements of all Syrian refugees once they pass background checks and settle here – but again, most of the refugees are children or senior citizens.
And there is nothing keeping the FBI from tracking suspected terrorists of any nationality or residency status. If a refugee does exhibit red flags after making it through the background checks, the FBI can begin tracking that person.
In 2010, the FBI arrested two Iraqi refugees who had been under surveillance for being suspected of trying to smuggle weapons from Kentucky back to Iraq. They were caught handling heavy weapons on camera after being set up in a sting by the FBI.
McCrory said Syrian refugees aren’t being vetted and that the FBI doesn’t know where they are.
The vetting process has faced criticism, but it does exist – leading to the rejection of thousands of applicants and, in many cases, taking more than two years for those who are approved.
There are also extensive records of where refugees are initially settled. The FBI does not automatically track all of them once they’re settled, but nothing is stopping agents from tracking refugees who make it through the vetting process but later exhibit signs of extremism – and there are recent examples of the FBI doing exactly that.
McCrory distorts the reality of the Syrian refugee system, and we rate this claim Mostly False.
PolitiFact, Nov. 19, 2015, "Ben Carson: 'There is currently no ability to vet' Syrian refugees"
PolitiFact, Dec. 15, 2015, "Ted Cruz's claim that the head of the FBI told Congress 'they cannot vet those refugees' from Syria"
PolitiFact, June 13, 2016, "Wrong: Donald Trump says there's 'no system to vet' refugees"
PolitiFact, Nov. 15, 2015, "Jeb Bush: 'It takes almost a year for a refugee to be processed in the United States'"
The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2015, "Senior Obama officials have warned of challenges in screening refugees from Syria"
The Greensboro News & Record, July 6, 2016, "North Carolina among top states resettling Syrian refugees"
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), August 2016 brief, "National Security and Refugee Resettlement from ‘High Risk’ Countries"
ABC News, Nov. 18, 2015, "Terrorists Once Used Refugee Program to Settle in US"
Historical statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency
U.S. State Department, Nov. 17, 2015, "Background Briefing on Refugee Screening and Admissions"
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