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Obama administration defends its Syrian refugee screening

A Syrian woman holds her child after their arrival on the Greek island of Lesbos on Monday. (Photo: Santi Palacios/AP)

The Obama administration is defending its process for screening Syrian migrants as rigorous and safe, following the declaration of more than half the nation’s governors that they would not accept the refugees in their states.

On Monday, Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said Syrian refugees go through stringent screening. “We stand by our process,” Toner said. “We take very seriously the security of the United States.”

On Tuesday, as the number of governors refusing refugees had nearly doubled, the Obama administration arranged a call for reporters with three administration officials, none of whom agreed to be named, to defend the screening process.

Each of the approximately 70,000 global refugees who come into the country each year go through a vetting process that includes fingerprinting and biographical information. That data is then cross-checked by the FBI, the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

But Syrian refugees go through a process that is more rigorous. The United Nations Refugee Agency refers applicants to the U.S. after an initial screening. Then Syrian cases are reviewed at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) headquarters, and are referred to a special fraud- detection section for additional review. Each applicant is interviewed by a staff member who has received an eight-week training session that includes techniques on how to “test credibility,” according to a senior administration official. The fraud-detection section then checks each refugee’s claims about his or her past to confirm identity — especially if the person lacks identification papers. For example, if a family said they do not have documents because a bomb fell on their house, the fraud-detection team would investigate whether a bomb really did fall at the address and on the date they provided.

The Syrian review process also involves cooperation with U.S. intelligence, to ensure no refugee is on a terror watch list or involved in any ongoing investigation.

There are clear limitations to what the investigators can find out, however, about applicants from Syria, since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Syria and the country is in chaos. Investigators can ask if an applicant has a criminal history, but they have no access to Syrian records to confirm applicants’ answers.

”If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home but … there will be nothing … because we have no record on that person,” said FBI Director James Comey at a congressional hearing last month.

Of the about 2,200 refugees from Syria so far, about half are children, and another quarter are adults over 60. Texas, California and Michigan have received the greatest number of Syrian refugees, more than 200 migrants in each state. According to a senior administration official, only 2 percent of those admitted so far are males of military age who are unattached to families. This is because the intention is to focus on the most vulnerable applicants, generally women with children or their elderly relatives. The approval rate for Syrian refugees so far has been 50 percent, and the Obama administration’s goal is to grant about 10,000 migrants admission over the next year. Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Amy Pope wrote that the White House remains “steadfastly committed” to that number.

The Obama administration is organizing a call with concerned governors, the officials said, to try to convince as many as possible to support their effort. While states have little legal ground to stand on in their refusal, the refugee program involves extensive local cooperation, and sending refugees to communities that don’t want them would be difficult.

“We don’t want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcomed,” one official said.

Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz, both Republican presidential candidates, have suggested Congress should pass a law restricting Syrian migration into the country.

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