Obama administration officials vowed there will be no “shortcuts” in admitting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, though they admitted to Congress Thursday they won’t be able to do the kinds of thorough checks like accessing local databases or visiting neighborhoods to verify applicants are who they say they are.
More than 90 percent of Syrians are currently being approved for refugee status, which is a strikingly high percentage. But officials said they expect that to drop as more applicants work their way through and tougher cases begin to be denied under the strict scrutiny the government has promised.
President Obama has said he wants to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016, which began Thursday, and even more in 2017, as he seeks to boost the U.S. role in handling the more than 4 million Syrians who’ve been displaced.
It’s part of Mr. Obama’s plans to take a worldwide total of 85,000 refugees in 2016 — up 15,000 over the previous year.
But Republican critics said the U.S. isn’t prepared to screen that many Syrians, given the challenges on the ground in the Middle East and the lack of access to Syrian government files that could help vet the applicants.
“You don’t have the ability. I wish you did,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, told administration officials testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel.
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Matthew Emrich, associate director of the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, admitted they will not be able to send investigators into Syrian neighborhoods to check backstories, but said the U.S. government does have a number of ways to do checks — and said each applicant will face an in-person interview with a USCIS officer trained to spot fraud.
“They know what questions to ask,” he promised.
Barbara Strack, chief of refugee affairs at USCIS, said her officers are empowered to deny applications whenever they feel it’s appropriate. And she said Customs and Border Protection officers will have a final say on admitting refugees when they arrive at U.S. airports.
Mr. Emrick said the U.S. has taken refugees from other countries where, as with Syria, American officials didn’t have access to extensive data.
Indeed, some Democrats have pressed the U.S. to take as many as 100,000 Syrian refugees next year, pointing to the peak in 1980, when 200,000 refugees arrived, bolstered by a massive influx from Vietnam.
“Our past experience demonstrates we can resettle refugees in a manner that is consistent with our national security,” said Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat.
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Democrats said the U.S. has an obligation to help, pointing to European countries that have said they’ll take tens of thousands of refugees.
But Mr. Sessions said the U.S. already does its part, and he wondered why nobody offered to help last year, when the U.S. was facing a flood of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who claimed they were fleeing violent and economically depressed conditions back home.
“I don’t think the Europeans helped us with the Central American problem,” he said.
Mr. Sessions, who has taken the lead in pushing for tighter restrictions on immigration, said the refugees would quickly become eligible for welfare and other aid programs, and given their economic circumstances would put new burdens on American taxpayers.
He said 91 percent of refugees from the Middle East in the last five years were receiving food stamps.