Administration officials defend 'intensive,' 'enhanced' refugee screening

Administration officials defend 'intensive,' 'enhanced' refugee screening
© Getty Images

Senior administration officials on Tuesday defended a federal refugee resettlement program amid criticism by lawmakers and governors who want to block Syrian refugees from coming to their states in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris. 

Three officials, speaking on background during a call with reporters, pointed to "intensive screening" that refugees undergo, including biometric, fingerprint and in-person screening and security checks across multiple federal intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies. 

The officials said Syrian refugee applicants undergo "enhanced review," and those who work on such cases go through additional training. 

"Iraqis and Syrians tend to be a very heavily documented population," said one official. 

Officials said that the current acceptance rate is a little over 50 percent, not including cases that are still pending, but that they expect that rate to rise.

The refugees are about evenly split between men and women, with slightly more "but not a lot more men," an official said, adding that half of them are children. 

"Only two percent are single males of combat age," the official added. 

The officials also argued that the program has historically had bipartisan support.

ADVERTISEMENT

"It's had a bipartisan support, and good funding levels from Congress," one official said. "A lot of questions we're getting are from members who are just learning about the program for the first time." 

"There's a lot of misinformation out there on the blogosphere," the official added.

The officials said they would be on Capitol Hill briefing members of Congress this week and participate in calls with governors, mayors and other state officials to educate them and answer questions about the program. 

The campaign is part of an attempt to counter growing public fear of terrorist attacks within the U.S. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday showed that 63 percent of Americans are fearful that a Paris-style attack could happen here.  

Those fears were heightened when a reportedly fake passport appearing to belong to a Syrian refugee was found near the body of one of the Paris attackers. 

On Tuesday, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) told lawmakers the House will likely vote this week on legislation to temporarily halt the president's plan to allow thousands of refugees fleeing the four-year civil war in Syria to resettle in the U.S., citing safety concerns. 

“Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan told reporters. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”

White House officials say the president will stick to his plan of bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in 2016 and more in 2017. 

However, a growing number of governors — 27 Republicans and one Democrat — by Tuesday afternoon also said they opposed resettling Syrian refugees in their states at this time. 

The administration officials stressed that the federal program is clearly dependent on the support of local communities, which they argued have been overwhelmingly supportive of refugees so far. 

They said nine networks, including faith-based organizations, help to settle refugees throughout the country and that the U.S. has taken in more than 3 million refugees since the program was stood up in the mid-1970s. 

"This has incredible quiet support from coast to coast," an official said. "We find that refugees are welcomed almost everywhere in the United States."  

The officials expressed confidence over the U.S. government's capacity to process more refugee applicants.

"It will require us adapting and flexing, but I think it's well within our capacity," another official said. 

In addition, the officials argued that the U.S. has a long tradition of taking in refugees, as well as a moral obligation to do so. 

"Slamming the door on their faces would be a betrayal of our values," said an official. "We are talking about a program that is in the best American traditions and that reflects our values."