A group of 14 Democrat senators has written a letter to President Obama urging him to "dramatically increase" the number of Syrian refugees being resettled into American cities and towns.
They say the U.S. needs to take in at least 65,000 Syrians as permanent refugees over the next year-and-a-half.
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"While the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, we must also dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that we accept for resettlement," says the four-page letter to Obama, copied to Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
More than 3.5 million Syrians are registered with the United Nations as refugees, and the U.N. wants to assign about 350,000 of them to so-called "third-party countries."
The 14 senators, led by Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., cite the research of the Refugee Council USA to make their case for 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. RCUSA is the main lobbying arm of the nine agencies that contract with the federal government to resettle refugees in cities and towns across America.
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The more refugees brought into the country, the more government grants doled out to the nine resettlement agencies. Among them are the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Church World Service, International Rescue Committee and the National Association of Evangelicals' World Relief.
More than 90 percent of Syrian refugees will be Muslim
Of the 843 Syrians resettled in the U.S. since the start of the Syrian civil war, 92 percent have been Muslim and about 7 percent Christian. Syria's overall population is 90 percent Muslim and close to 10 percent Christian.
"The vast majority of these refugees are women and children, including two million children," the letter states, using language similar to what Democrats used to justify the entry of some 60,000 unaccompanied alien children from Central America last year. "An entire generation of Syrian children is at risk.
"More than ten thousand Syrian children have been killed, and half of Syrian refugee children are not attending school, more than one-hundred thousand are working to support their families, and thousands are unaccompanied or separated from their parents.
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"[W]e urge your Administration to work to accept at least 50 percent of Syrian refugees whom UNCHR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] is seeking to resettle, consistent with our nation's traditional practice under both Republican and Democratic Presidents."
The letter also addresses the security concerns about accepting Syrians who may have ties to the various Islamic extremist factions fighting to overthrow and replace Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Among them are ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army.
"We fully support your Administration's efforts to ensure that any potential security concerns are addressed by strengthening security checks for refugees with the latest technology and information," the letter states.
"Refugees are the most carefully vetted of all travelers to the U.S., with extensive biometric, biographic, intelligence, and law enforcement checks involving numerous agencies," the letter says, parroting the U.S. State Department talking points about the quality of the screening process for refugees.
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The problem with that argument, however, is that it has been debunked by FBI counter-terrorism experts who have openly admitted it is virtually impossible to screen Syrian refugees, precisely because U.S. agents don't have access to reliable biometric and law enforcement data. As WND previously reported, Michael Steinbach, deputy assistant director of the FBI counter-terrorism unit, admitted at a hearing before the House Homeland Security committee on Feb. 11 that reliable records are not available in a "failed state" like Syria.
The House Homeland Security Committee was schedule to hold another hearing this week on the national security risks associated with the Syrian refugees, but that hearing was postponed Thursday until further notice.
The letter being sent to Obama makes the upcoming House hearing even more pivotal as the battle over this issue heats up on both sides of the aisle, with Democrats pushing for more Syrians and Republicans pushing for less.
'A serious mistake'
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, says resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S. is a "serious mistake" and should be stopped until safeguards are in place.
"We have no way … to know who these people are, and so I think bringing them in is a serious mistake,” said McCaul during a press conference Thursday.
McCaul said the U.S. has “no intelligence footprint or capability” inside Syria to ensure refugees mean no harm.
"We don’t have databases on these individuals so we can’t properly vet them," he added, "to know where they came from, to know what threat they pose, because we don't have the data to cross-reference them with."
McCaul, who has visited Syrian refugee camps overseas, said that while there are "a lot of mothers and kids, there are [also] a lot of males of the age that could conduct terrorist operations."
"That concerns me," he added.
Former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is equally concerned.
"It is virtually impossible for the United States government to 'vet' Syrian refugees prior to resettlement in the U.S.," Bachmann told WND. "Bringing Syrians into the U.S. is more than a terrible idea, it could be deadly for innocent American citizens."
'Give me your tired...'
The U.S. takes in more refugees than any other country by far. In the current fiscal year it has committed to accept 70,000 and some years it has been as high as 200,000. Almost all of the refugees coming to the U.S. are selected by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Also playing against the Democratic senators argument is the recent string of arrests of Somali refugees and children of Somali refugees. Just last month six Somali young men were arrested and charged with trying to leave the country to fight for ISIS. Two of them used their college student loan money to pay for plane tickets to Turkey.
Dozens of others have gone to fight with al-Shabab in Somalia and still others have been arrested, charged and convicted of providing money or other material support to overseas terrorist organizations.
Somalia, like Syria, is a failed state where the U.S. has no military presence and no access to reliable law enforcement data, said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
"This issue has obviously come up before. We've had a bunch of people who have come in as refugees and committed terrorist acts, or tried to commit terrorist acts," said Camarota. "But I think the underlying question is, one, the ability to vet people from a war-torn country that had poor record keeping to begin with is virtually nonexistent now. There's simply no way to know what people have done in the past from a country like Syria.
"All we know about Syria is that powerful and well-organized terrorist groups operate throughout the country," he said.
Lessons learned or mistakes repeated?
Even if they could be adequately screened, experience proves that the children of Muslim immigrants are sometimes in more danger of being radicalized than their parents, Camarota said.
He points to numerous recent cases like that of Hoda Muthana, the 20-year-old daughter of Muslim parents who emigrated from Yemen more than 20 years ago and settled in Birmingham, Alabama. She left to fight for ISIS in November after being recruited over the Internet. Her parents have been "traumatized" by losing their oldest daughter, according to an article by AL.com.
The fact that some arrive as "children" is also no guarantee against radicalization. Some are radicalized online or in American mosques after they become teens and young adults.
That's what happened to the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing. They came as asylum seekers as young boys with their parents from war-torn Chechnya.
"Unfortunately, a number of people who have come as refuges became radicalized after they arrived in the United States, including the Tsarnaev brothers. The younger brother, who just got convicted, was a young boy when he arrived with his family," Camarota said.
"We've had a number from Somalia who have gone to fight for ISIS or al-Shabab who came to America at young ages," he added. "Unfortunately, we've also seen a number of cases where people have been radicalized after they got here from Somalia."
There is an alternative that low-immigration advocates such as Camarota say could be more effective in helping the plight of true refugees.
"We can help countries in the region resettle these folks, provide resources to countries like Jordan, and countries like Saudi Arabia, which is a rich country with lots of space," he said. "And because they would be close to their home countries they could return once the war is over."
Resettling refugees costs the American taxpayer $1.5 billion a year, and that does not include the cost of social welfare benefits. Unlike other immigrants, refugees immediately qualify for government benefits such as food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, or TANF, subsidized housing and Medicaid health care.
"Instead, that money could be used to help a lot more people resettle in the Middle East region, making it more likely that their life would be less disrupted and they would be more likely to return home," Camarota said. "We could help more people and make it more likely rather than bring a tiny number here at huge costs and bring these risks to national security."
Clare Lopez, vice president for research and analysis at the Center for Security Policy, said taking in more Syrian refugees poses risks that must be balanced against humanitarian concerns.
"Welcoming more Syrian refugees to the U.S. would be a generous move to make, so long as they can be vetted to exclude any who identify with a jihadist ideology or worse yet, are jihadis themselves," she said. "It would also make sense to be sure we select those who will most easily assimilate to America's Judeo-Christian-based legal system and Western-style democratic society."
While the lobbying group Refugee Council USA refers to itself as nonprofit and bipartisan, refugee watchdog Ann Corcoran doesn't buy it.
She said conservatives shouldn't be fooled by the "church sounding names" of RCUSA's member organizations (see list here).
"Looking at this list they all appear to be from the hard left," said Corcoran, who follows the refugee movement at her blog, Refugee Resettlement Watch.
The senators' letter closes by saying: "[I]t is a moral, legal, and national security imperative for the United States to lead by example in addressing the world's worst refugee crisis of our time by greatly increasing the number of Syrian refugees who are resettled in our country. Thank you for your time and consideration."