refugee

Make “Enhanced” Vetting Great Again

Last week, President Trump issued a new executive order (EO) that restarts the refugee system with new “enhanced” vetting procedures.  The new procedures will subject the follow-on family members of refugees to about the same level of vetting as the original refugee sponsors who have already been settled in the United States.  This extension of the current refugee vetting system will cover about 2,500 additional follow-on refugees per year.  The EO also forward-deploys specially trained Fraud Detection and National Security officers at refugee processing locations to help identify potential fraud, national security, and public safety issues earlier in the screening process.  Additional actions of the EO are enhanced questions to identify fraud and other inadmissible characteristics as well as upgrades to databases to detect potential fraud or changes in refugee information at different interview stages.  The EO also directs the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence, to review and reform refugee vetting procedures on an annual basis. 

The EO justifies these new measures by stating that, “It is the policy of the United States to protect its people from terrorist attacks and other public-safety threats … Those procedures enhance our ability to detect foreign nationals who might commit, aid, or support acts of terrorism, or otherwise pose a threat to the national security or public safety of the United States, and they bolster our efforts to prevent such individuals from entering the country.”  

All in all, these new vetting procedures are modest additions to the already intensive refugee screening that occurs.  If these new enhanced screening procedures are supposed to be the “extreme vetting” that President Trump proposed then they show just how extreme and secure the refugee program already was.  Furthermore, they are unnecessary.

Terrorists by Refugee-Restricted Countries

The EO also places additional scrutiny on refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Those eleven nations represent supposed security threats identified on the Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) – a government list of nations established in the 1990s whose nationals are supposed to be more closely scrutinized for particular national security threats.  The government has updated and expanded the SAO criteria as well as the nations on the list multiple times since 9/11.    

The government may have an excellent rationale for designating nationals from these eleven countries as serious threats that require more refugee vetting but those reasons and the evidence supporting them are not available for the public to examine.  Publicly available information points to a small refugee threat from refugees from these nations that does not justify additional screening.  Since 1975, zero Americans have been murdered on U.S. soil in a terror attack committed by refugees from any of the eleven countries.    

Heritage Report Shows Refugees Are Not a Major Threat

Olivia Enos, David Inserra, and Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation published an interesting Backgrounder last week about the U.S. refugee program. We agree with many, though not all, of its conclusions and think that it serves as a wonderful example of policy experts grappling with a difficult policy question in a nuanced and thoughtful way – two characteristics often lacking in Washington, D.C.

However, the Backgrounder’s claim that 61 refugees were convicted of Islamist “terrorism-related” offenses since 2002 has earned a lot of attention from the media. David Inserra was kind enough to send us a complete list of the refugee terrorists he and his colleagues counted. Here are the facts about these 61 people:

  • None of these refugees killed anyone in a terrorist attack on U.S.-soil.
  • Only five (8 percent) were refugees who attempted or planned an attack on U.S. soil. The other 56 (92 percent) of the list were either not refugees or not terrorists targeting U.S. soil.
  • At most 50 were actual refugees who may have committed terrorism offenses, out of the 2.1 million refugees admitted since 1989, which is the earliest year that anybody on the list entered as a refugee. At least eleven (18 percent) of the refugee terrorists reported by Heritage were either not actually refugees or not convicted of terrorism offenses.
  • Only five (8 percent) entered as refugees since 2008.
  • Only five (8 percent) were likely refugee security vetting failures who entered as adults or older teenagers and committed an offense soon after entering.
  • The 50 refugees represent just five of the 124 nationalities of refugees admitted since 2002 (4 percent). Three-quarters of the refugees who committed a terrorism offense came from a single nation.

The security threat from refugees is minuscule, concentrated among a few Somalis, and has little to do with vetting.

The Non-Refugees and Non-Terrorists

The Backgrounder’s use of terrorism-related offenses is problematic as it is not synonymous with actual direct or indirect support of terrorism. There is no definition of a terrorism-related offense in U.S. statutes but there is a broad working GAO definition: that it relates to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” As far as we can tell, the term terrorism-related is used to describe a conviction for any offense that results from a terrorism investigation – even if it is for crimes that bear no relation to terrorism such as buying stolen cereal. David Inserra told us that “Our [Heritage’s] inclusion criteria wasn’t based on convictions for terrorism offenses because people could be involved in that sort of activity and not ever be convicted. We were trying to find the happy medium between overly-restrictive and too loose definitions.” Thus, we are working with different definitions and the reader should keep that in mind. 

Six individuals on the Heritage list were not convicted of terrorism offenses. The government dismissed its complaint against Al-Hazmah Mohammed Jawad. Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab and Ali Mohammed Al Mosaleh were charged with making false statements. Abdi Mahdi Hussein was convicted of failure to follow financial reporting requirements and was “not charged with any terrorism offense and was not alleged to have knowingly been involved in terrorism activities,” according to the FBI. Yusra Ismail was charged with stealing a U.S. passport—not terrorism—and Saynab Hussein was convicted of perjury.

Huge Net Costs from Trump’s New Executive Order Cutting Refugees

President Trump today issued a revised version of his infamous executive order to temporarily ban the issuance of new green cards and visas for nationals from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. The new order dropped Iraq, which eviscerated Trump’s argument that the list of banned countries is based on an existing list in U.S. law. The order also cuts the number of refugee admissions by about 37 percent compared to the post-1975 average number of annual refugees admitted—from 79,329 per year to just 50,000. However, there were 110,000 refugees scheduled to be admitted in 2017 so the actual decrease in refugees this year is a whopping 55 percent under this executive order. The Trump administration thinks this new order addresses many of the legal challenges made against the first version.

Introduction

When the first version of this order was signed at the end of January, Cato’s research showed that the actual domestic terrorism risk from nationals of those six countries was minor and that the order stands on shaky legal ground. For this iteration of the executive order, I intend to show that the permanent decrease in refugees costs native-born Americans more than we’d save from fewer terrorism deaths. This cost-benefit analysis does not look at the cost of temporarily reducing green cards and other visas.

Results

If Trump’s refugee reduction eliminated all deaths from refugee terrorists then it will cost native-born Americans about $159.4 million per life saved, which is about 10.6 times as great as the $15,000,000 per statistical life estimates if the average number of refugee admissions had stayed at 79,329 going forward (Figure 1). In other words, such a policy would reduce your annual chance of dying a terrorist attack committed by a refugee on U.S. soil from one in 3.64 billion per year to zero at a cost of $159.4 million per life saved. 

However, President Trump’s executive order is not decreasing refugee flows by 37 percent in 2017. The Obama administration slotted 110,000 refugee admissions for 2017, so this year’s reduction is actually 55 percent. If I assume that the new 110,000 annual admission figures would have been the new normal in the absence of Trump’s executive order, the economic costs increase to $326 million per life saved for a 100 percent reduction in your chance of dying in a refugee terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The economic costs incurred are about 21.7 times as great as the cost for a single death by refugee terrorist in this scenario (Figure 1). 

Syrian Refugees Face Hard Life: Americans Can Help

Accepting Syrian migrants in America and Europe has become an increasingly divisive political issue. While the Gulf States have refused to offer refuge to any fleeing Syrians, Syria’s direct neighbors bear a huge burden, with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey each hosting more than a million refugees. More than four million people have left Syria and even more have been displaced internally.

Last year I visited Zaartari Refugee Camp, located just a few miles from the Syrian border in Jordan. I was traveling with International Orthodox Christian Charities, which carries out an expansive ministry addressing the many needs of Syrians inside and outside of their country.

Zaartari, just a few miles from the Syrian border, opened in July 2012 and now contains around 80,000 people, making it Jordan’s 4th largest “city.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has overall authority to care of refugees, but a multitude of other governments and NGOs, such as the IOCC, my host, support Zaartari’s operations.

Camp residents are dependent on the charity of others. Economic life is almost entirely controlled from outside.

I visited a clinic which typically serves about 700 people daily. Samer Makahleh, with the Jordan Health Aid Society, coordinates health care programs. “To fill gaps we go to outside partners like IOCC,” he explained. Two people came up to me during my brief visit seeking financial support for operations.

Refugees receive a stipend of roughly $30 a month. Many also work for the camp, NGOS, or in private shops. Most surprising may be the diversity of private businesses, around 2500 in all, many of which line the main street, called the Champs-Elysees. (I’ve included photos in my photo-essay on Forbes online.)

The UNHCR estimates that 60 percent of working age refugees are employed to some degree. Helping with security was 22-year-old Abdul al-Jabbar, who said his family of nine came from the city of Daraa to the camp three years ago. Life is difficult, he said, “but at least we are alive. We must adapt.”

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