Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy's efforts to shed light on the government's secretive refugee resettlement program continues to play out in letters between himself and the federal agency responsible for resettling thousands of foreign refugees in U.S. cities and towns every year.
Since his letters haven't produced many answers, he's now calling for a meeting with State Department officials.
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Gowdy, R-S.C., started asking questions in April about how refugees are distributed to various cities, the impact on local job markets and public services, and who makes the key decisions, among other points of interest. His questions came after it was revealed that Spartanburg, a city in his home district, was selected to receive 60 to 65 refugees over the next year, mostly from Syria. Unable to answer all of the questions posed by some nervous constituents, Gowdy fired off letters to Secretary of State John Kerry.
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After getting a response from Kerry that he said was "wholly inadequate" and "vague," he demanded more specifics on May 4. On Wednesday, he received a second response, which he called a "non-response."
The State Department secretly selected Spartanburg sometime last year to be one of its designated "receiving communities" for Syrian refugees, 92 percent of whom to date have been Muslim people that the FBI has said will be virtually impossible to safely screen for terrorist connections.
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South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley's refugee coordinator then quietly approved the Spartanburg resettlement in December – again with no public input or notice.
In reaction to the State Department's refusal to fully answer Gowdy's 14 follow-up questions, which he sent on May 4, he said he is inviting a State Department official to meet with South Carolina's legislative delegation and answer questions in person.
"The State Department's response to our office's 14 follow-up questions was again sorely inadequate and failed to provide answers," Gowdy said in a statement emailed to WND. "Additionally, our office met with World Relief in April, contrary to State’s most recent letter. Because the State Department was wrong on this account, and because our office did not receive answers to our questions during that meeting with the resettlement agency, we are inviting State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield to provide a briefing to the South Carolina delegation on this issue."
Frifield told Gowdy in the latest correspondence that any further information on the refugees coming to Spartanburg would have to come from World Relief, the nonprofit evangelical relief agency that has contracted with the government to provide resettlement services in the city.
Jason Lee, a local pastor hired by World Relief to be its Spartanburg director, "is eager to detail the community consultations that have occurred to date and answer questions about refugee populations that are under consideration for resettlement, the role of Good Neighbor Teams, and refugee access to benefits and employment services. Such a meeting would provide more in-depth information about the consultation process and the support World Relief has for this program among many citizens of Spartanburg."
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Gowdy seeking 'transparency, not outcomes'
Frifield was also quick to point out that the refugee program for Spartanburg had been approved by Gov. Haley's office. Such state approvals typically occur behind closed doors without notification of the public or the state legislature, another aspect of the "secrecy" issue that reformers would like to see changed as the refugee program gets brought out from under the shadows.
"From the beginning, our interest in this issue has not been to advocate for an outcome, but to ensure transparency and get answers to constituent questions," Gowdy said Wednesday. "We will continue to pursue those answers through a face-to-face briefing with the State Department."
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The letter restated most of what was in the State Department's previous letter from Secretary of State John Kerry, which Gowdy said failed to give real answers to his constituents' questions about how cities are selected for refugee resettlement, how they are screened and how the impacts on local communities are measured.
"As noted in our previous correspondence, all refugees ... are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States," states the latest letter to Gowdy, dated June 1. "The specific details of these checks are classified."
FBI terrorism expert Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the agency's counter-terrorism unit, has said that screening refugees from a "failed state" like Syria is beyond the capability of U.S. intelligence because the U.S. has no military presence in Syria and does not have access to reliable police or intelligence records. Steinbach testified publicly to this fact at a Feb. 11 hearing before the House Homeland Security committee.
Yet, the State Department continues to tell congressmen and the public that refugees are rigorously screened. The contradicting statements from the FBI and the State Department continue to trouble those in Spartanburg and elsewhere who have been pushing back against a refugee program they see as secretive and unaccountable to anyone, and the government hides details by working through a maze of private nonprofit "contractors."
Is 'screening' the only issue?
If the State Department is correct, and the FBI is wrong, and refugees are closely vetted, that still leaves the government with no explanation for the fact that some Muslim refugees come to the U.S. with clean records and end up getting radicalized afterward. In other cases, refugees who have been law-abiding citizens have had children after coming to America, and those children end up getting radicalized online or through personal connections with other Muslims.
The Tsarnaev brothers, for example, came to the U.S. as small boys with their parents, who were asylum seekers to escape war in Chechnya. They grew up attending a Boston mosque, became radicalized and killed three people, injuring scores of others, at the 2013 Boston Marathon. A similar scenario played out with Hoda Muthana of Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents came from Yemen more than two decades ago. They lived peacefully in an upscale suburban neighborhood and raised several children, one of which was Hoda, who at age 20 became radicalized and left the country to become an ISIS bride.
Spartanburg residents formed a group called Spartans for Biblical Immigration in March after learning that Syrian refugees were headed for their town. The plans for the resettlement had been in the works since at least early 2014, Kerry revealed in his April 30 letter. But these plans were not shared with the Spartanburg public until a story appeared, with few details, in the local newspaper on March 8 of this year.
Spartans for Biblical Immigration is just the latest grassroots push to get the State Department to become more transparent in the way it operates the refugee program.
Several mayors have pushed for a halt in the flow of refugees to their towns until they can get a handle on the bottom-line impact to city services. Ted Gatsas, mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Nancy Denson, mayor of Athens, Georgia, have joined other mayors in Lynn and Springfield, Massachusetts, in pushing for more information and openness. Residents of St. Cloud, Minnesota, which has received thousands of refugees from war-torn Somalia over the years, have also been pushing for information. The U.S. absorbs more than 800 Somali refugees per month and 70,000 from all countries per year.
It all starts at the U.N.
The U.S. State Department works with the United Nations to resettle about 70,000 foreign refugees per year into more than 190 cities and towns across the U.S.
Most of the refugees, displaced by wars and rebellions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, are hand-selected by the U.N. for assignment to the U.S., which is then responsible for screening them for terrorist ties.
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has also been highly skeptical of the State Department's assurances that Syrian refugees won't have ties to ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra, or other Islamic terror groups that operate in Syria.
McCaul said recently he fears the refugee program could become a "jihadist pipeline" to America.
Yet, 14 Democrat senators including Richard Durbin of Illinois, Diane Feinstein of California, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont wrote a letter May 21 to President Obama urging him to "dramatically increase" the number of Syrian refugees imported to the United States. The Democrats cited Refugee Council USA's recommendation of 65,000 Syrians be brought to the U.S. for permanent resettlement by the end of Obama's term in office. RCUSA is the main lobbying arm of the nine agencies which contract with the State Department to resettle refugees in the U.S. These nine – including World Relief, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to name a few – get paid by the head and share the wealth with more than 350 smaller agencies that serve as subcontractors.
Regardless of its name or mission, any agency receiving federal grant money is barred from evangelizing or sharing the Christian gospel with the Muslim refugees.
ISIS already scoring with refugees in Europe
For its part, ISIS has already promised through social media it will infiltrate the refugee ranks of Western countries.
And it's already had some documented successes. Take Norway, for instance.
Several refugees that the U.N. sent to Norway recently were discovered to have ties to the terror groups ISIS and al-Nusra, Norway’s Police Security Service (PST) has disclosed.
According to the service, between five and 10 of the 1,000 Syrians chosen to go to Norway by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were discovered to have links to one of the two terror groups, according to the Local, Norway's English-language news service.
“Unfortunately, there are some who try to exploit and abuse the refugee agency," Police Superintendent Svein Erik Molstad told Norway’s Dagbladet newspaper. "We have discovered more quota refugees with ties to the al-Nusra front and IS."
According to Molstad, the investigations have also uncovered refugees with backgrounds in Syria's feared secret police, as well as others suspected of carrying out war crimes during the country's ongoing civil war.
Although PST is now working in the Middle East, its officers neither interview nor have other direct contact with prospective refugees.
Dagbladet told the newspaper he has also learned of Islamists using refugee reception centers as recruiting grounds for terrorists.
"Let’s do the math," says Ann Corcoran, who authors the refugee watchdog blog Refugee Resettlement Watch. "If the Norwegian secret service found 10 of 1,000 U.N. refugees with terror connections, that is 1 percent of the total. If we admit 65,000, 1 percent is 650."
The prospect of bringing 650 Syrian jihadists "could sure cause a lot of mayhem here in America," she said.
At a hearing before McCaul's Homeland Security committee Wednesday on ISIS's recruitment efforts, counter-terrorism experts told the committee that at least 4,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS from Europe alone. At least another 200 Americans have gone to join the jihadist group's ranks.