Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards, only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States, and none was successfully carried out. That is one terrorism-planning conviction for every 286,543 refugees that have been admitted. To put that in perspective, about 1 in every 22,541 Americans committed murder in 2014. The terrorist threat from Syrian refugees in the United States is hyperbolically over-exaggerated and we have very little to fear from them because the refugee vetting system is so thorough.
The brutal terrorist attack in France last Friday reignited a debate over accepting refugees from Syria and the Middle East. A Syrian who applied for asylum could have been one of the attackers, although his passport was a forgery. (As of this writing, all identified attackers have been French or Belgian nationals.) Governors and presidential candidates have voiced opposition to accepting any Syrian refugees, while several bills in Congress could effectively end the program.
There are many differences between Europe’s vetting of asylum seekers from Syria and how the United States screens refugees. The geographic distance between the United States and Syria allows our government to better vet those seeking to come here, while large numbers of Syrians who try to go to Europe are less carefully vetted. A lax security situation there does not imply a lax security situation here.
The Differences between Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Much of the confusion over the security threat posed by refugees is over the term “refugee” itself. It’s not yet clear how many foreign attackers in Paris entered Europe, but one or more may have entered disguised as asylum seekers.
In the United States, asylum seekers show up at U.S. borders and ask to stay must show they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion if they return to their country of origin. There is an application and investigation process, and the government often detains the asylum seeker during that process. But the investigation and vetting of the asylum seeker often take place while he is allowed inside of the United States. Many of the Syrians and others who have entered Europe are asylum seekers who are vetted through similar, less stringent security screens.
Refugees are processed from a great distance away and are more thoroughly vetted than asylum seekers as a result. In the United States, a refugee is somebody who is identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a refugee camp. UNHCR does the first round of security checks on the refugee according to international treaties to which the United States is a party and refers some of those who pass the initial checks to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The referrals are then interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer abroad. The refugee must be outside the United States, be of special humanitarian concern to the government, demonstrate persecution or fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and must not be firmly resettled in another country.
Because the refugee is abroad while the U.S. government checks their background, potential terrorist links, and their claims to refugee status, the vetting is a lot more thorough and can take up to two years for non-Syrians. For Syrians, the vetting can take about three years because of the heightened concerns over security.
Asylum seekers, on the other hand, face rigorous checks, but they are conducted while the asylum seeker is inside of the United States and not always while he is in a detention center. Syrians fleeing violence who come to the United States will be refugees, whereas many getting into Europe are asylum seekers. This crucial distinction shows that the United States is in a far better security situation vis-à-vis Europe on any potential terrorist threat from Syrians.
The distinction between asylum seekers and refugees is usually lost when discussing the security threat from refugees. The father of Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev was granted asylum status, which conferred derivative asylum status on the children. None of the Tsarnaevs were ever refugees.
Both Tamerlan and Dzokhar were children when they were admitted through their parents’ asylum claims. They did not adopt a radical interpretation of Islam or start plotting a terrorist attack until years after coming here. Their case does not reveal flaws in the refugee vetting process. There were some other terrorist attacks in the early 1990s from applicants for asylum status, but none of them were actual refugees.