COMMENTARY: Refugees go through rigorous vetting process

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, spoke Wednesday on the Senate floor regarding the debate on Syrian Refugees. His speech is below.

As our presiding officer knows, I’m no longer the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, but I’m the senior Democrat. I’ve served on the committee for about 15 years, and the issue of security of our homeland, whether it’s from cyber attacks or terrorists or any number of other threats is one that I have thought a lot about and care a whole lot about.

A couple of months ago, on the other side of the Capitol, we had a visit from Pope Francis and he addressed a joint session of Congress. I’m not Catholic but I was moved. I know a lot of our colleagues were moved, too, especially when he invoked the Golden Rule, when he called on all of us to treat other people the way we want to be treated. We were also moved when he invoked the words of Matthew 25: “When I was hungry, did you feed me; when I was naked, did you clothe me; when I was thirsty, did you give me drink; when I was a stranger in your land, did you take me in?”

Sen. Thomas R. Carper

Sen. Thomas R. Carper

When I hear the prospect of a thousand or so Syrian refugees coming to this country this year and more next year, I think of the desperate plight of a lot of people who are trying to escape a hellacious situation in Syria. They’ve been living, in some cases months or years, in refugee camps. What kind of moral imperative do we have with respect to taking them in? What kind of moral imperative do we have, at the same time, to protect those of us who live here from possible threats that might be caused by that immigration?

This week I’ve learned a few things about our refugee screening process that I didn’t know before. There’s a lot more I have to learn. But among the things I’ve learned this week is when those who are refugees, whether they’re in Turkey, Pakistan, Syria, or on the other side of the world, they don’t get to come easily or quickly.

It’s not like someone can go apply for refugee status to come to the U.S. and come this week, or this month, or even this year. The average wait for folks who are in refugee status trying to get out of a refugee camp is not a week; it’s not a month; it’s not a year — it’s a year and a half. And for folks who are of Syrian descent, the wait could be even longer.

I’m not going to go through all of the hurdles that those seeking refugee status have to go through, but it’s a screening process that begins not with the Department of Homeland Security in this country, but it begins with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees overseas.

The U.N. first registers refugees, gathers biometric data, and gather other background information. Only those individuals who pass the U.N. assessment are ever referred to the United States for possible resettlement. In a case where we’re looking to accept a thousand Syrian refugees this year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees may interview three, four, or five thousand refugees or more to come up with a list of a thousand that we would even consider.

Those refugees are interviewed not when they get off a plane here in the United States, but overseas before they ever step foot on a plane. Before they ever get on to a plane, they go through any number of multiple background checks and vetting.

We use biographical checks conducted by the State Department, security advisory opinions from intelligence and other agencies for certain cases, National Counter-Terrorism Center checks with intelligence agency support, Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation biometric checks, and Department of Defense biometric screening.

And then when they get here, if they get here, after going through all of that, then they have the opportunity to be interviewed again face-to-face by Department of Homeland Security folks who are trained to interview people alleging to be refugees. If they get approved to stay here as a refugee, then we continue to monitor them for an extended period of time.

A year or so ago, there was great concern during the Ebola epidemic that a lot of people infected with Ebola were going to come to the United States, across the border with Mexico, infect us all, and cause a lot of people to die. Not one American died from Ebola contracted here.

So I would have us just take a deep breath, try to gather the facts, and understand really what somebody’s got to go through in order to ever get here as a refugee. It’s not an overnight, or a one-week, it’s not a one-month, it’s not a one-year deal. If I happen to be a bad guy wanting to come over here and create mischief, I sure wouldn’t come as a refugee. I wouldn’t cool my jets for a year and a half trying to get through that process.

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