On November 19, 2015, the House of Representatives passed a bill denying Syrian refugees en masse admittance into the United States. “The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015” requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct investigations on all refugees before Congress authorizes their entry into the country. The FBI will conduct these investigations alongside the Department of Homeland Security-led vetting process, which takes approximately two years per migrant. Congress approved the November bill less than a week after the Paris terrorist attacks, which had no connection to Syrian migrants but had left U.S. lawmakers reactive and shaken. Evidently, unfounded fears, not logic, guided Congress’ approach to the new migrant vetting policy. Lost amid the blusterous blare of politicians is the collective voice of the would-be migrants still trapped in Syria.
Syrian migration has surfaced as a hot potato in Congress. No one wants to suffer the political consequences should any Syrian migrants commit terrorist acts in the United States in the future. So, lawmakers will continue advancing hastily devised anti-migrant legislation to avoid policy failures. Congress should instead adopt a more meticulous approach to legislation. Hamstrung U.S. policymakers should strive to craft national security regulations based primarily on data collected from official and publicly releasable government sources.
The government has failed to develop meaningful outreach programs to Syrian migrants. These programs could gauge their motivations, ideologies, or beliefs ahead of Congress’ November vote on refugee screening. As a foundation for future policies, the U.S. Department of State, Census Bureau, and Congressional Research Service should work together to coordinate information-gathering practices on U.S.-bound migrants. Involving information-intensive government agencies in the procedure would help to reduce redundancy. Migrants would also be more willing to offer their opinions and beliefs honestly to these objective, non-security-related organizations. And this information can supplement the multilayered screening process, which currently only considers less than 1% of the global refugee population for entry to the United States; the government approves a far lower percentage for access.
These information-gathering programs could include teams of census takers or pollsters traveling to the region to supplement background vetting of the migrants. Members of Congress should also embark on fact-minding missions to refugee relocation areas in Western Europe, Jordan, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey. As a supplement to perhaps a longer and more comprehensive vetting process, such fact-based programs offer Congress a better sense of who the refugees are and what they want. If Congresspersons and their staffs are presented with official government research findings ahead of drafting their bills, and if they or their colleagues spend time on the ground in refugee relocation centers, U.S. laws are more likely to be grounded in fact.
Consequently, future legislation will be more methodical. Through adoption of information-gathering programs, Congress could establish a firm precedent for fact-finding missions and cultivate an information-sharing relationship with the American people. Even if Congress decides not to grant any migrants entry – a very real possibility if vetting concerns persist – at least it will have the facts before deciding.
Congress’ fears have some merit. According to a February statement from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants to insert operatives into that flow.” But does Clapper’s announcement validate Congress’ decision to ban all migrants? No. Congress should, of course, be extremely discerning and take necessary precautions regarding refugee entry. But rejecting all migrants is un-American, given U.S. values and the vast contributions immigrants have made to the country since its founding. Furthermore, most migrants are certainly not affiliated with ISIS. They deserve a fair shot at being granted asylum. Most importantly, Congress did not base it¬¬s decision on intelligence information anyway, creating the anti-migrant legislation several months beforehand.
In terms of national security, it may be riskier to not give Syrian migrants sanctuary once vetted. After all, ISIS opposes Syrian mass exodus to the West. If Congress allows at-risk migrants into the United States, it could prevent ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups in Syria from absorbing them. If coerced by ISIS, these potential migrants could ultimately pose a long-term threat to U.S. interests, whether or not they are in the country, because they would still threaten American citizens abroad. Even if a small percentage of the migrants are radicalized once relocated to the United States, domestic security services could swoop in more easily to apprehend them than if they were helping to plot transnational attacks from the ISIS caliphate.
Fear of the very real threat of terrorism will endure so long as ISIS is active. Nonetheless, many refugees who could have gained their freedom and security in the United States died in the Syrian conflagration. Congress should rise above the presidential race’s rage-fueled demagoguery to introduce more data-based initiatives. This will provide Congress a more balanced picture of the crisis and better inform the American public. And it will offer remaining civilians still suffering in Syria seeking resettlement in the United States – 67% of whom are women and children – a grain of hope.
Matthew Calabria is a Master of Arts in International Affairs candidate at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.