President Obama's top official responsible for vetting refugees testified before the Senate Wednesday that it's possible for people from Syria and other terrorist-infested countries to have their refugee applications approved based simply on personal interviews with a "highly trained" immigration officer.
Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, could not deny that in many cases there is no data from the refugee's home country that would corroborate or refute his story. He tried to reassure the committee by saying the screening process is lengthy and continuously being improved, noting that the United Nations pre-screens the refugees before his office even sees them.
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Under questioning from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rodriguez at first avoided giving a direct answer on whether it was possible to gain admission as a refugee based solely on an interview. That infuriated Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who chairs the subcommittee on immigration and the national interest. His subcommittee conducted the hearing Wednesday on Obama's refugee plans for fiscal year 2017, which begins Saturday, Oct. 1.
Obama plans to bring 110,000 refugees to the United States in 2017, up from 85,000 in 2016 and 70,000 in 2015.
The administration has exceeded its 2016 target on Syrian refugees by 30 percent, resettling 12,500 in dozens of U.S. cities and towns, rather than the 10,000 it had promised the U.N.
At Wednesday's hearing, administration officials refused to say how many refugees they intend to bring in from Syria in fiscal 2017, only that it would likely exceed the 12,500 brought this year.
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Nor did they say how many would come from Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan and other hotbeds of Sunni radicalism.
When the subject turned to the process of "vetting" the refugees, sparks began to fly.
Sessions unloads on chief screener
Sessions delivered a stern rebuke of the federal agency responsible for vetting for what he said was its evasive, biased agenda that denies "plain reality."
Watch clip of Sen. Sessions' scorching rebuke of Leon Rodriguez and the vetting process he oversees:
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Also testifying was State Department deputy secretary Simon Henshaw.
In an exchange with Sessions, Henshaw admitted no screening is conducted for the refugees' proficiency in English or their beliefs about Islamic honor violence, female genital mutilation and other issues related to their loyalty to Shariah law.
Sessions: “Do you take into consideration the applicant’s proficiency in English or even their literacy with regard to the country from which they come?”
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Henshaw: “Our decisions to bring in refugees are based on their vulnerabilities.”
Sessions: “Do you make any inquiry about practices that we reject in the United States like female genital mutilation? Do you say, ‘Do you believe in that, and when you come to the United States, will you comply with the laws of the United States on that kind of question?’”
Henshaw: “On all questions, we make it clear to refugees that we are a nation of laws and that they need to comply with our laws.”
Sessions: “But you don’t ask them whether they would comply with that law?”
Henshaw: “I can’t answer that question. I don’t know.”
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he didn't think the U.S. government should even ask a refugee candidate if he is Muslim, let alone pry further about his religious views.
Cruz produces leaked memo
Cruz read from a 2012 leaked internal memo in which a Homeland Security official said people fleeing wars in the Middle East can get their status as refugees approved based solely on their own personal story as communicated to U.S. immigration officials in interviews.
At first Rodriguez brushed aside the question by denigrating the memo's author, who concluded that refugee fraud was "easy to commit yet difficult to investigate."
He said everyone over the age of 14 is interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted during their application for refugee status.
"Whoever wrote this [memo] didn't know what they were talking about," Rodriguez told Cruz. "I would like to know [who authored the leaked memo] because whoever it was, was deeply misinformed."
But after Cruz repeated the same question three times, Rodriguez ultimately conceded it is possible for a person to win refugee status based solely on his or her interview.
Rodriguez said "there are always cases where the testimony is not corroborated by documents."
"The memorandum says … 'the testimony of the applicant alone is sufficient for approval.' This strikes me as a recipe for fraud, if we are letting refugees in based on what they claim to be, despite warnings of the FBI that we can't vet these people," Cruz said.
"Is it true or false that the testimony of the applicant alone can be sufficient for approval?"
"Are you saying it's true or are you saying it's false?" Cruz repeated after another attempt by Rodriguez to dodge the question.
Rodriguez said there are cases where the testimony is not corroborated by information from the person's home country.
"I am acknowledging it [the interview] can be the basis for granting the approval but it needs to be tested against the information in the country of origin," Rodriguez said.
'We have a right to ask questions!'
Sessions let it be known he was not happy with Rodriquez's attempts to skirt around the question.
"We have a right to ask questions, and we expect unbiased, objective answers," Sessions said. "And that took way too long to get you to deliver an answer, and I don't appreciate it. And I'll just tell you, others doubt the validity of this program and how effective it is."
Just on day earlier, on Tuesday, Sessions said FBI Director James Comey testified in the House about how difficult it will be to contend with an expected wave of returning ISIS fighters into Europe and the U.S.
Comey said, "There will be a terrorist diaspora within the next two to five years like we've never seen before. We must prepare ourselves and our allies in Western Europe to confront that threat, because when ISIS is reduced to an insurgency and those killers flow out, they will try to come to Western Europe and here to kill innocent people."
'Reluctant to acknowledge the dangers'
Sessions said the agency headed by Rodriguez doesn't appear to be taking that threat as seriously as the FBI.
"What he [Comey] is saying is, we don't have a system that can stop that from happening and it can happen in a lot of different ways. I'm uneasy that you're reluctant to acknowledge the dangers that we have. You're in charge of it. He's in charge of security too and he admits there are dangers. And I'm just not happy about it. I just want you to know. And I believe Senator Cruz is correct to say there's a willful blindness here, or just a refusal to acknowledge plain reality."
Democrats on the panel – Al Franken of Minnesota, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – focused on the emotional scars of refugees, photographs of dead children and their own immigrant ancestors while accusing Sessions and the Republicans of not standing for America's best, shirking its duty to help the downtrodden, as expressed by the poem carved on the Statue of Liberty.
Sessions said he would not be intimidated by such accusations.
'I'm not going to be intimidated'
"I'm not going to be intimidated, and others aren't, from discussing the danger, by somebody saying, 'You don't believe in refugees,' that 'You oppose Cuban refugees.' I'm not opposed to refugees from Cuba or other places of the world. Our concern is that we be sure we're careful about it, and the people in charge of it need to be well engaged and concerned about the danger we face," Sessions said.
Rodriguez said 7 percent of refugee applications from Syria have been "outright rejected" and another 13 percent have been placed on hold because they could be fraudulent.
"We've turned a lot of people down," he said.
Terror, honor violence, FGM coming to America
Sessions said there are an estimated 23 to 27 victims of honor killings each year in America, citing a study reported by Fox News.
"That's in America, not in Syria. And 91 percent are murdered for being too 'westernized.' That doesn't sound like assimilation to me," Sessions said. "Most are daughters, subjected to physical and emotional abuse all related to fundamentalist Islam."
More than 500,000 mostly Muslim women in America are also at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation, according to a recent report published in the Washington Free Beacon.
In the eight years of the Obama administration, Cruz asked how many refugees have been implicated in terrorism cases.
Rodriguez admitted the number was "significant" but could not give a number. About 40 cases have been identified by Sessions' subcommittee as gleaned from various news reports.
Cruz said there were two from his own state of Texas. A Palestinian born in Iraq was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee in 2009, and he obtained a green card in 2011. According to reports, Omar Al Hardin was charged with making false statements to immigration officials and told his wife, "I will go to Syria, I will blow myself up, I am against America."
"In your view, did the vetting process work well in admitting Mr. Al Hardin as a refugee?" Cruz asked.
"I, I, uh, I wouldn't speak to a specific case," Rodriguez replied. "Obviously if there is derogatory information that we missed, that is an area of concern about that specific case. I will say that we review each individual case and ask ourselves, 'Is there something that we should have done differently?'" Rodriguez said.
In another instance on Feb. 5, 2015, Abdel Nasser Muhamad Ibrahim, a native of Somalia, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia. Ibrahim came to the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 22 and was subsequently given a green card, Cruz said.
"We keep seeing instances over and over again of refugees coming to America with an intention to engaging in terrorism, and ISIS has made clear that they intend to exploit our refugee program, to send terrorists to America to commit murder. To murder innocent Americans. How can you assure the American people that we are not right now admitting more terrorists who would wage jihad against our nation?" Cruz asked.
"Because we conduct the process in a manner that is designed to do everything in our power to screen out individuals who mean us harm ... including by UNHCR, the fact that people are interviewed multiple times even before my office sees them."
"But the interviews aren't catching these individuals," Cruz said. "We're letting them in."
"There are those cases," Rodriguez said. "There are also cases where we've stopped people from coming into the United States. As time has gone on, the process has become better and better; there are things we are doing now that we didn't do two years ago. There are even things we didn't do a year ago."
He admitted the screening process is still not foolproof.
"So we are continuing to strengthen the process further and further. It's not going to eliminate all risk," he said. "But we are doing it to have the highest level of confidence that we can that we are not allowing threats to the United States."
Senator's letters ignored: 'This is absolutely breathtaking'
Sessions had difficulty even getting the administration officials to testify before his subcommittee. The original hearing date, Sept. 20, had to be postponed because the administration sent all three of the officials Sessions wanted to testify to the global refugee summit at the United Nations.
Sessions said, "The fact is, anyone who understands the challenge they face to do this vetting, you cannot vet people from Syria because there's no way, and we have no plans to send anyone into Syria to verify anything that they say [in the interviews]. That's the problem, fundamentally."
He asked Rodriguez, "Are you not aware that I've written four letters to the department asking for information on how many refugees have been convicted of criminal and terrorist activities?"
"I confess chairman I am not. I will certainly make sure to follow up on those correspondences."
"This is absolutely breathtaking," Sessions said. "It's a total disrespect to this body that is in charge of giving you money to run your business, and we should quit giving you money, if you don't respond and you don't know basic things."
Sessions said he sent letters on Aug. 12 and on Dec. 3 of 2015, then again on Jan. 11 and in June of this year.
"So frustrated was I that I wrote directly to the president and asked why can't we get this information. So you think we're entitled to know this?" he asked.
"Of course you're entitled to answers to you questions. I will follow up, Sir," Rodriguez said.
"To me, it indicates the determination to promote an agenda without listening to the American people, without listening to their elected representatives, and to downplay and misrepresent, really, the danger that this program presents," Sessions said. "And we're not having terrorists from a lot of areas, but some areas we are having terrorists that threaten this country in a whole lot of ways."
Those testifying Wednesday included Rodriguez from USCIS, along with Simon Henshaw, the State Department's principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and Robert Carey, director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services.