This week, the Senate is set to consider legislation that purports to improve the vetting process for Iraqi and Syrian refugees but in reality delivers nothing but crippling red tape. Lawmakers are right to be concerned about security. But after a detailed look at this bill – and after seeing for myself the security measures already in place at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan last week – it is crystal clear that the perversely named America SAFE Act would do nothing but damage to our national security.
An estimated 13.5 million Syrians are now fleeing horrific violence at the hands of ISIL, the Assad regime, and Russian airpower. Since 2013, the United States has accepted about 2,200 of the most desperate cases without a single security incident. The America SAFE Act’s red tape would effectively sever even this meager lifeline while doing absolutely nothing to improve our security. The act provides no additional resources to security agencies, mandates no additional checks, and plugs no gaps in an already redundant system; all it does is require higher-level government officials and more administrative offices to sign off on every single refugee’s file. Call it the ‘DMV theory of national security.’
Refugees are already by far the most extensively vetted people to step off of an airplane and onto American soil. Before they can even board a flight, a refugee from Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else in the world must pass an exhaustive, redundant series of security and medical checks and interviews, performed by an overlapping group of agencies that includes the FBI, the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, and more. In part because of this high level of security – and the 12 to 18 months it typically takes to clear – the refugee resettlement process is probably the single least attractive option a terrorist organization has for slipping its members into America.
Moreover, on the ground in the Middle East, the security measures in use for identifying and tracking Syrian refugees have improved dramatically. During my visit to Jordan last week, I was surprised to see retinal scanners in wide-spread use in refugee camps, at registration centers, in medical clinics, and even at ATMs where refugees withdraw cash assistance. Meanwhile, a talented Syrian software engineer – himself a refugee – was able to hack the two-dimensional bar code on Syrian government passports, allowing officials to immediately cross-check documents and detect forgery. Simply put, the security technology in use at refugee camps today is probably better than the systems at American airports.
And then there are the refugees themselves. In my close to a hundred conversations with Syrian refugees living in very difficult conditions, not a single one expressed a desire to travel to Europe or the United States unless they had absolutely no choice. What they want, overwhelmingly, is the opportunity to return to Syria and rebuild. They ask not for green cards, but for better schools for their kids, the chance to work and earn a living, and the opportunity to go to college. Sitting with Syrian families in the Zaatari camp, I was consistently struck by how similar their concerns and their dreams are to most families in my own hometown. Officials on the ground told me that the refugees themselves were the best security check of all, consistently turning in any extremists they find in their midst.
And they continue to look to the United States for hope. I was reassured to discover that many of them recognized America is different, in powerful and essential ways, from the other countries involved in Syria’s civil war. They reminded us of the role we played in forging peace in the former Yugoslavia, and hoped that we might do something similar in their own country. They are watching our political debates, listening to our rhetoric, and rooting for Americans to remember our best selves.
In a region where we already have plenty of enemies, we would do well to remember how loudly our actions speak and the ways that friendship is earned. The Senate must not choose to turn away refugees and, in doing so, turn away from American values – because those values are the very source of our strength and security.
Breen is the president and CEO of the Truman Project, a former U.S. Army officer, and a founder and board member of the International Refugee Assistance Project.