Article Nov 19, 2015

Explainer: What you should know about the Syrian refugee controversy

Recently more than half the nation’s governors—27 states—have expressed opposition to letting Syrian refugees into their states. Many lawmakers in Congress are also considering legislation that would suspend the Syrian refugee program. Here is what you should know about the current controversy:

Why is there a new concern about allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S.?

According to the French government, at least one of the terrorists in the recent attack on Paris is believed to have entered the country by posing as a refugee. The concern is that through inadequate screening procedures, similar would-be terrorists may be able to enter the U.S.

What is the Syrian refugee crisis?

For the past four years, Syria has been in a civil war that has forced 11 million people— half the country’s pre-crisis population—to flee their homes. About 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country and 4 million have fled Syria for other countries. The result is one of the largest forced migrations since World War Two.

Are all the refugees fleeing Islamic State (ISIS)?

Not necessarily. The crisis is mostly caused by the civil war in Syria. In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion and has spread across the country.

Although the conflict was originally between factions for and against President Assad, the civil war has broadened into a battle between the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect. The conflict has drawn in neighboring countries and world powers and lead to the rise of jihadist groups, including Islamic State.

What makes a person a “refugee”?

The U.S. government defines “refugee” as any person who is outside any country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Are all of the people fleeing the Middle East refugees?

No. Both refugees and “migrants” have been leaving the Middle East and Central Asia for Europe. Generally speaking, a migrant is any person who leaves one country for another and is not a refugee. There is an important distinction between the two categories, because the two groups of people have different rights under international law. Refugees are given a number of protections under international law, the most important of the which is the right to not be deported and sent back to the conditions which led the refugee to flee in the first place. On the other hand, migrants are subject to the immigration laws of the country to which they are migrating.

While Europe has been accepting both migrants and refugees, the U.S. refugee resettlement program has only been accepting individual and families that can prove that they are refugees under international law.

What is the U.S. doing about the refugee crisis?

Since the start of the conflict, the U.S. has admitted approximately 2,100 refugees from Syria. At a press briefing September 10, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the Obama administration is making plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next budget year. (There is currently cap of 70,000 refugee visas a year that U.S. officials can issue for all countries.)

What is the screening process for refugees?

Every refugee goes through an intensive vetting process, notes Time magazine, but the precautions are increased for Syrians. According to Time:

Multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies perform “the most rigorous screening of any traveler to the U.S.,” says a senior administration official. Among the agencies involved are the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS officer conducts in-person interviews with every applicant. Biometric information such as fingerprints are collected and matched against criminal databases. Biographical information such as past visa applications are scrutinized to ensure the applicant’s story coheres.

How effective are the U.S. refugee screening processes?

The screening process has a very good track record. The U.S. has resettled 784,000 refugees since 9/11, and many of these refugees came from the Middle East. According to Kathleen Newland of the Refugee Policy Institute:

In those 14 years [since 9/11], exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible.

Any screening process cannot guarantee a 100% success rate. But there are much easier ways for a terrorist to enter the United States, since asylum seekers must present themselves for identification, fingerprinting, and other biometric scanning.

How many of the refugees admitted to the U.S. are Christian? Are Muslim?

According to an analysis by CNS News, of 2,184 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, only 53 (2.4 percent) have been Christians while 2098 (or 96 percent) are Muslim. The remaining 33 include 1 Yazidi, 8 Jehovah Witnesses, 2 Baha’i, 6 Zoroastrians, 6 of "other religion," 7 of "no religion," and 3 atheists.

Why do the Republican lawmakers want to suspend the Syrian refugee program?

Congressional Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, said there were grave reasons to fear that terrorists would be permitted to enter the country posing as refugees, according to the New York Times.

Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was drawing up legislation to suspend the refugee resettlement program.

“I call on you to temporarily suspend the admission of all additional Syrian refugees into the United States pending a full review of the Syrian refugee resettlement program,” Mr. McCaul wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.

“Our nation has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees into our country, but in this particular case the high-threat environment demands that we move forward with greater caution,” Mr. McCaul added.

Who is in charge of the resettling refugees into the U.S.?

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is the federal government agency charged with providing benefits and services to assist the resettlement and local integration of refugee populations. The ORR often works closely with non-governmental organizations, such as World Relief, in the relocation of refugees. Some of the ORR programs include Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance (for up to 8 months); Refugee Social Services, such as job and language training (for up to 5 years); and temporary custody and care to unaccompanied refugee children.

Which state have refused to accept Syrians refugees?

The 27 states whose governors have said they will not accept Syrian refugees are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Can governors refuse to accept refugees in their state?

Not exactly. According to the Refugee Act of 1980, resettlement efforts coordinated by the federal government “should be conducted in close cooperation and advance consultation with State and local governments” and “meet with representatives of State and local governments to plan and coordinate in advance of their arrival the appropriate placement of refugees among the various States and localities.”

Additionally, the law says, “With respect to the location of placement of refugees within a State, the Federal agency administering subsection (b)(1) shall, consistent with such policies and strategies and to the maximum extent possible, take into account recommendations of the State.”

So while the state and local governments can refuse to cooperate with the federal government, they can’t expressly forbid refugees from being allowed into their states.

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