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The US is so paranoid about Syrian refugees that it’s letting barely any in

Refugees aren't just slipping into the US. Screening takes two years, and it's nearly impossible for people to pass.

Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty

Outright refusal to allow Syrian refugees into the US is gaining steam among Republicans. Republican presidential candidates are calling to limit immigration to only Christian refugees (or to end it entirely), and several Republican governors are now openly refusing to allow any Syrian refugees to resettle in their states.

The rationale is that the US isn't doing enough to screen refugees before they enter the country — running the risk of ISIS infiltration. But it's bitterly, tragically ironic that this idea is gaining momentum right now. The sad truth is that the US's insistence on screening Syrian refugees carefully, and its almost paranoid aversion to admitting anyone whose family might have had any form of contact with any extremist group at any point, created a bottleneck that for years prevented nearly any Syrian refugee from coming to the US. The federal government has just, in 2015, started devoting enough resources to screening refugees who've fled Syria to start allowing them to come into the country in any numbers at all.

The US has admitted only 2,000 Syrian refugees over the past four-plus years

In theory, the US has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016 (which began this month). But it's incredibly unlikely the government will reach that goal — given that the US has taken in barely 2,000 Syrian refugees in a period of more than four years.

Furthermore, it's only recently that the US has started processing many Syrian refugees at all. From 2011 to 2014, the US took in barely 200 refugees from Syria. It's only in the past year or so — and specifically in the past six months — that the US has picked up the pace. Even so, the US took in only 187 Syrian refugees in October 2015. At that rate, it would take 53 months — four and a half years — to reach this year's goal.

A couple of these reasons are logistical: The US couldn't have started taking in hundreds of Syrians in 2011, when the country's civil war began, even if it had wanted to. But in large part, it's because the Obama administration has been extremely worried about the very terrorist threat that Republicans are hyping now. And it's led the administration to be so cautious in processing applications that barely any refugees have qualified to come.

It's taken the US years to get the staff in place to find and process Syrian refugees

The international community has been trying to come up with solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis that don't involve the time- and resource-intensive work of permanently resettling refugees in a different country from the one they've fled to.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees — which coordinates refugee policy, and which is nearly always the body referring refugees to the US for screening and possible admission — only considers fewer than 1 percent of all global refugees as candidates for resettlement; in 2014, barely 100,000 refugees were resettled by UNHCR around the world. But even so, the UNHCR has referred more than 22,000 candidates for resettlement to the US over the past two years. The rest of the bottleneck is the US's fault.

To be fair, resettling refugees is always a lengthy process. It often takes years to deploy enough processing personnel and resources on the ground to find and vet refugees for resettlement (and that's not counting the 18 months to two years it takes to process an individual application).

The US can't turn on a dime. There's very little flexibility to respond to emergencies like the one in Syria — even when those emergencies are visible years in advance. Because the US wasn't planning to take large numbers of Syrian refugees until 2013 or so, it hasn't had enough of those resources on the ground in, for example, the Turkish and Lebanese camps where many Syrians are located.

But even once the US had those resources in place, it wasn't moving as quickly as it's moved in other places that are supposed to be "priorities" for the US refugee program. The difference isn't just that Syrian refugees are Middle Eastern and typically Muslim. But it's certainly relevant.

The US takes two years to research and approve Syrian refugees before letting them in

Republican opponents of letting Syrian refugees into the US have seized on comments by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson this fall, in which he essentially admitted that the US couldn't know everything about a Syrian refugee when he or she first applied. "It is true that we are not going to know a whole lot about a lot of the Syrians that come forth in this process, just given the nature of the situation," Johnson said.

This has been taken as evidence that the US is letting Syrians enter America without knowing anything about them. What it really is, instead, is an explanation for why it takes two years for US officials to approve a refugee's application.

Once the UN refers a refugee to American officials (or the refugee has applied through an embassy, which very few, if any, Syrian refugees have), there are multiple consecutive stages of the application that he or she has to pass through:

  1. An approval of the refugee's written application, or "file," ensuring that the refugee meets the requirements for admission into the US
  2. A security background check
  3. A face-to-face interview with refugee officials, to independently confirm the refugee's identity and the details of his or her account of persecution

The entire process typically takes 18 months to two years. With Syrians, it's been closer to the latter. And most of the holdup has been with the security check — which imposes a standard for involvement with terrorism that is often, in practice, impossible to meet.

Syrian refugees have to prove they're not affiliated with a terrorist group

In the Syrian civil war, tangled allegiances and fractured rebellions have blurred the lines between civilian and combatant, and between jihadist and non-jihadist rebel. It is just difficult to exist in Syria without interacting to some extent with a group that the US might consider linked to terrorism, and that is almost always a deal breaker for resettlement.

No immigrant is legally allowed to come to the US if she's ever been affiliated with a terrorist group, or if she's provided "material support" to one. For refugees, that ban extends to the spouses and children of anyone who's been affiliated with or materially supported a terrorist group. And it's one of the things investigators most consider when they conduct a security check on a refugee — and a big reason why it takes 18 to 24 months to process a resettlement application.

Syrian refugees have to prove a negative: that they have never had any involvement with any group the US would consider terrorists. For men who have served with one rebel group or another during the war, that can often be impossible; if a man left a rebel group when it affiliated with al-Qaeda, he has no way to prove that he wasn't an al-Qaeda affiliate himself. Families that have had no involvement with any groups, meanwhile, face the difficult task of proving the absence of any involvement. And this is compounded by the administrative problems in processing Syrian refugees: Different databases may transliterate Arabic names differently, making them hard to cross-check; some names may sound alike and lead to confusion of identity.

The US doesn't need to tell any refugee why his or her application to settle in the US has been rejected, and there's very little information publicly available about how many refugees have been rejected because the US is concerned about terrorist ties. But it's been a concern of advocates and some lawmakers for a while.

The US took until this spring to find a standard for "supporting" terrorists that actually worked

In early 2014, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) held a hearing to call attention to the restrictions on refugees who'd provided "material support" for terrorist groups in Syria — saying that someone who gave a rebel "a sandwich or a cigarette" could be barred from the US.

In response, the government created an exception: People who provided "insignificant" material support could now get admitted as refugees, if the official processing them thought they deserved a pass. But the government took until May 2015 to define "insignificant" support, putting a hold on any applications that might have fit in that category for 15 months. A year-plus is short in policy time, but for the refugee families struggling to get by in overcrowded refugee camps, it is an eternity.

Apparently the change has made a difference. Since June, the US has admitted nearly 200 refugees per month (in the months before the policy change, by contrast, it was admitting fewer than 100). But in order to meet the 10,000 goal the US has set for the coming fiscal year, it would have to admit more than four times that number.

US refugee policy already has an Islamophobia problem. That needs to be stopped, not enabled.

The US has already proven extremely reticent when it comes to taking refugees from Middle Eastern conflict zones where terrorist groups are present. In Iraq, after the US withdrew its official combat presence, it allocated 20,000 special immigrant visas meant for the families of Iraqis who had aided the US. But it actually gave out only a fraction — just 392 in 2011, for example, and 6,000 in 2013 after heavy lobbying from advocates and a domestic outcry.

It's impossible to say for sure how much fear of terrorism and outright Islamophobia have slowed down the process of admitting Syrian refugees so far. But it certainly appears that the Syrian refugee process has taken a lot longer, and been a lot more difficult, than it is for other countries (such as Myanmar).

The Obama administration has been trying to balance the security and political risk that the "wrong" refugee poses, even if it is just one or two out of tens of thousands, with the humanitarian urgency of helping the "right" refugees now. It became painfully clear a year ago that it was erring so far on the side of security that it wasn't actually doing much to help.

It would certainly be ironic if just as the US government had started admitting Syrian refugees at one-quarter of the pace it had promised, Republicans were able to shut down the program entirely. It would also be a humanitarian tragedy.

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