In a blistering cross-examination of officials responsible for the U.S. refugee resettlement program, it was revealed at a Senate hearing Thursday that more than 90 percent of Syrians who apply for refugee status get approved despite very little data being available to check for security risks.
The officials who run the program also either don't know or refused to say how many refugees have become terrorists once resettled on U.S. soil, nor could they say what percentage of refugees they are able to positively identify before letting them into the country.
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Immigration officials responsible for screening refugees made an attempt to show that the process is rigorous and "continuously being improved," but Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., dismissed the generalities and demanded specific answers during a two-hour hearing before the Senate subcommittee on immigration and the national interest.
The U.S. State Department, which works with the United Nations to send 70,000 to 100,000 refugees per year directly from the Third World into U.S. cities and towns, has long described the screening process as "the most rigorous of all travelers coming into the United States."
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That statement was made again at the opening of Thursday's hearing.
But Sessions drilled down to specifics as to exactly what the meaning of "rigorous" is.
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Testifying was Matthew Emrich, associate director for Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services within the Department of Homeland Security.
Sessions asked if Emrich's department had access to even a single database in Syria that could provide solid background records on refugees in order to confirm a refugee is who he says he is.
"Can you name a single computer database outside of maybe some of our own very small but valuable intelligence databases for Syria that you can check against. Does Syria have any?" Sessions asked.
"The government does not, no sir," Emrich answered.
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Sessions pointed out from various press reports that Syrian passports can be purchased on the black market for as little as $200, and that nearly half of the refugees pouring into Europe are actually from Pakistan, Afghanistan, north Africa and other hotbeds of Islamic terrorism.
Emrich said in many instances refugees "do have documents from Syria, and we do have ways of identifying those documents, as she (colleague Barbara Strack with the Refugee Affairs Division at DHS) mentioned our officers are trained in fraud detection."
Sessions repeatedly reminded Emrich and Strack that a top FBI counter-terrorism official, Michael Steinbach, testified to Congress earlier this year and admitted that the U.S. has no access to reliable law enforcement data inside Syria because it is has become a "failed state" where the U.S. has no "boots on the ground."
"Michael Steinbach on Feb 11 expressed serious concerns with the screening of Syrian refugees. I don't see how you can gloss over this," Sessions said. "He said… you're talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure and therefore any of the institutions you would normally go to and seek data on these individuals, do not exist."
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Emrich said there is some data available, but not from the refugee's home country, "and we'd be happy to describe it to you in a different setting. We check everything that's available."
"But Mr. Steinbach is making a serious point, that there are no databases to check," Sessions said.
"We check everything that we have available within U.S. holdings. As far as I'm concerned if we haven't overturned every stone we are in the process of overturning every stone," Emrich responded.
"There you go," Sessions said. "We're turning over everything we can overturn. I don't deny that. But you don't have their criminal records, you don't have the computer database that you can check, so isn't Mr Steinbach telling the truth? That in many cases it just doesn't exist?"
Emrich then made a startling admission. "In many countries the U.S. accepts refugees from, the country did not have extensive data holdings," he said.
"I'm asking you to talk to the American people," Sessions said. "The American people are asking you a question. I know what Mr. Steinbach said. So aren't you left with basically looking at whatever document they produce and whatever they tell you?"
Emrich said he could assure the American people "that we have a robust screening process and these processes are continually reviewed and upgraded whenever possible, and it includes an in-depth interview with a trained U.S. government officer and is accompanied by an additional interview, an inspection rather, when the person presents him or herself at a U.S. port of entry."
Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, again dug in his heels and would not accept Emrich's answer.
"I've been in law enforcement for 15 years," Sessions said. "I know how the national crime information system works, I know how these checks are conducted. There's no way you can do background checks on these people. If you get a hit on a background check, you can reject that person, but you have only a miniscule number of people who have been identified in that fashion, so I don't believe you can tell us with any certainty that that person is who he says he is. So aren't you left with looking at whatever document they produce?
"Is there any way you can actually send someone to Iraq or Syria and see if someone actually lived on the street where they said they lived, or actually had the job he claims to have had?"
Emrich said his department does not have the ability to send an investigator to Syria but relies on biometric and biographical information.
"I'm sure there are things you can do, but are you saying you can independently verify with positive data on the majority of cases?" Sessions asked. "Can you give me a number? Is it 50 percent, 60 percent, 80 percent?"
"I can't give you a number sir," said Strack.
"And the reason is, you don't have the ability," Sessions concluded. "I wish you did, but you don't."
Turning to terror
Sessions then went down a list of refugees who turned into terrorists after they were resettled in the United States. He mentioned six Somali men from Minnesota charged last week, an Uzbek Muslim refugee in Idaho who was convicted in August for making bombs and recruiting other Muslims to attack U.S. military installations, seven others in Minnesota charged with trying to join ISIS, among dozens of others.
"The problems we face are here, now," he said. "This is not just scare tactics. A coach in Minneapolis said 'there are monsters out there,' more than 20 young (refugees) from Minnesota between 2007 and 2009 left to join al-Shabab (an al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia). And in the past year disappearances began again, this time to the Islamic State. Ms. Strack and Mr. Emrich you don't have the ability to do security checks on these people."
Sessions asked, "Can any of you tell me of the number of persons granted refugee status since 2001 who have been affiliated with terrorist activity?"
Neither Strack, nor Emrich nor the other officials testifying Thursday could answer that question. Among those who sat mum was Robert Carey, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement which operates within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"Well we have a lot of public records on them," Sessions said, "certainly not complete."
Sessions' subcommittee established a list of 72 men arrested between July 2014 and July 30, 2015, who were charged with terrorist activity and appear to be immigrants from Muslim nations.
More than 73 percent of refugees receive food stamps, and the figures are even higher among refugees from the Middle East, Sessions said, citing a congressional research office report.
Larry Bartlett, director of admissions for the U.S. State Department's refugee program, said most of the refugees have been coming from Iraq, Bhutan, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo with Syria now added to the mix.
Sessions cited a Washington Post article that said the Tsarnaev family arrived in the United States in 2002 as refugees and their two sons came a short time later. They were actually asylum seekers, which is a similar but different category of immigrant. Their two sons grew up and became the Boston Marathon bombers.
Kerry said refugees are resettled in 173 cities in 48 states.
Sessions asked if local cities and towns are consulted before refugees arrive.
"What's your policy on that and can you assure us that any community that will receive a direct flow of refugees will be consulted?"
Bartlett said quarterly briefings are conducted.
"We have 320 resettlement affiliates and we require them to do consultations each quarter of the year with elected officials, the city council and mayor, school officials, hospitals and health clinics, law enforcement and any volunteer groups supporting refugees," he said. "That takes place quarterly, and includes a representative of the state government, usually the governor's office."
Democrats call for more refugees, shorter screening period
Senate Democrats on the committee, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Al Franken, D-Minn., asked almost no questions during the rare oversight hearing and used their time to comment on the tear-jerking photos of refugees in Europe.
Klobuchar said she was "very proud" of the Vietnamese and Somalis who came to Minnesota as refugees and are now "a very important part of the fabric of our state." She did not mention the more than 50 Somalis who have left or tried to leave the country to try to join the ranks of foreign Islamic terrorist organizations, nor did she mention the dozens of others who have been tried and convicted in her state for offering material support to Islamic terrorist organizations.
The Democrats focused their emotion-based stories of desperate women and children seeking a better life, when the U.N. statistics show that 75 percent of the migrants flooding into Europe are men between the ages of 18 and 45.
Blumenthal said he'd like to see the screening process, which now lasts 18 to 24 months, dramatically shortened and reformed.
"My feeling is the American people still believe that we are the nation of the Statue of Liberty, that we have arms open for people that want to come here to escape persecution and conflict," Blumenthal said.
No mention of persecuted Middle East Christians
No mention was made at Thursday's hearing by any member of the Senate about the persecuted Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria. As many as 350,000 Christians have been forced to flee their homes, their property stolen, their wives and daughters raped and sold into sex slavery, often after watching their husbands beheaded or shot.
WND has previously reported that 95 percent of the more than 1,650 Syrians who have come to the U.S. since the beginning of Syrian civil war have been Muslim and less than 4 percent have been Christian.
The Democrats on the committee also pointed out that 18 mayors including Rahm Emanuel of Chicago have signed a letter asking the Obama administration to resettle Syrian refugees in their cities "because refugee make their cities stronger economically and socially."
'Faith leaders' want more Muslim refugees
Another letter, signed by 144 "faith leaders," was sent to Obama asking that the government not restrict the number of Muslim refugees allowed into the country from Syria or elsewhere.
Franken also talked about the photo of the drowned boy whose body washed up on shores of Greece and how it reminded him of his grandson.
"Many of our partners in the EU are formulating a plan to redistribute 120,000 migrants," he said. "The U.S. on other hand has only accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees (actually the number has now exceeded 1,650), although the administration plans to up that to 10,000. I joined with my colleagues, Senator Durbin and others, asking for 65,000 by end of 2016."
Besides security, Sessions said the cost of the refugee program is staggering. The cost of administering the program is more than $1 billion a year, but that doesn't include the billions spent on government assistance programs and lost jobs for Americans.
"The costs are much greater Mr. Kerry than you suggested in your statement. While we had 18 Democrat mayors asking President Obama to send more Syrian refugees to their cities, homelessness has doubled in the United States. Every new dollar spent on refugees is essentially borrowed because it's new expenses and we don’t' have new revenue to pay for it. There is homelessness in New York City, joblessness, so I would say someone else needs to help (the refugees). I don't accept the idea that we aren't doing our fair share. We have been very generous."
The U.S. has granted $4.5 billion in aid to Syrian refugees since 2012.
"Europe should be picking up the largest share of the problem and I don’t see it there," Sessions said. "And a good policy should be to help keep people close to home, in Yemen, in Libya, in Iraq, so people can go home more easily when the time comes, and we've allowed that to get away from us. We need to look at who are we going to serve and whose interest are we trying to serve?"