Courthouse News presents Part II of a series on U.S. strategy against the Islamic State.
WASHINGTON (CN) - Reassurances that the vetting process for Syrian refugees is secure fell on deaf ears during a heated House hearing Thursday, as one congressman said that letting Muslim refugees into the United States amounts to a "slow-motion cultural suicide."
The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on the refugee-resettlement process came hours before the House approved legislation for tougher screening for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the wake of last week's Paris terror attacks.
That bill passed 289 to 137, with the support of 50 Democrats. It requires the head of the FBI to certify to the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence that each individual refugee applicant poses no security threat.
Should the bill pass a Senate vote after the Thanksgiving holiday, the Obama administration has promised to veto it.
"That process would totally cripple the system without making it anymore effective," Mark Hetfield, the president of refugee-advocacy organization HIAS told the House committee.
It would bring the current system "to a screeching halt," added Hetfield, whose organization was once an abbreviation for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
"The security protocols in place are stronger than anything I've seen in my 26 years of working in this field," Hetfield said, noting that refugees fleeing to Europe do not undergo a vetting process until they reach European soil, unlike the U.S. process.
Leon Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, buttressed this testimony, saying the House bill passed Thursday "doesn't add anything to the already rigorous process in which we engage."
Echoing testimony that a Homeland Security official gave the Judiciary Committee last month, Rodriguez outlined the steps of the refugee-vetting process, which can take from 18 to 24 months.
Rodriguez also testified on how U.S. Customs officers dealing with refugee applicants are trained, saying the process is more intensive than for any of the agency's other officers.
Over the course of five weeks, officers receive specialized training on fraud detection, interviewing techniques and applicant credibility analysis, plus two intensive briefings on Syria, Iraq and Iran, Rodriguez said.
Prior to deployment, they undergo an eight-day briefing with classified information - which often contains more detail - and with security experts, who go over more specifics about the current environment in the region, the USCIS director added.
Before any solo interviews with applicants begin, new officers also face a 10-day mentoring period with more experienced co-workers, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez emphasized that the interviews officers with applicants and their families are in depth. Interview questions are generated by intensive briefing on country conditions, which includes classified information. Sometimes the questions are based on prior interviews, and they are generated by the experience and training of each officer, Rodriguez said.
Interview questions are determined carefully, on a case-by-case basis, he added, noting that the interview process "takes as long as it needs to take."
The officers compare and vet what they hear from any single refugee or refugee family with what they learn from or about other individuals from the same locations, he said.
When asked again to assure Congress of the effectiveness of the process, Rodriguez said there is an extensive process of mapping out family trees, aliases, previous associations and other processes when there is less documentation. He said the interview is an effective way to determine identity.
Despite what FBI Director James Comey may have said, Rodriguez stressed, the agency is not querying a void of information.
Anne Richard, assistant secretary with the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said the process "can withstand scrutiny."
It makes sense that the FBI does not have much data on Syrians because the agency is not on the ground in the region, Richard said, but many other sources of information are used in the vetting process.
In an interview for a previous Courthouse News article on the ongoing refugee crisis, the director of the State Department's Office of Refugee Admissions said the absence of a record hardly favors the applicant.
When gaps exist in data and something cannot be corroborated or verified, those applicants will be denied, the State Department's Larry Bartlett said.
Richard testified that the vetting process has improved since 2013, when two Iraqi refugees pleaded guilty to nondomestic terrorism charges.
"Had our current system been in place, they would've been caught before they got here," she said.
Through repeated interruptions of the testimony, many members of the committee expressed continued doubt about the safety of the process.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, asked USCIS Director Rodriguez if the interview process with refugees involves questioning applicants about their religious backgrounds.
Rodriguez responded that no applicant is disqualified because of faith. The religious backgrounds of applicants are explored only as a basis for their persecution, he said.
The director declined to answer when King asked, "Can you name for me, or identify for me, a suicidal terrorist that was not a Muslim?"
Rhetorically, law enforcement officials described the community school shooter who killed himself after a rampage in Roseburg, Ore., last month as an "anti-religious" white supremacist.
King said that the United States cannot assess a refugee applicant's risk without understanding his religious identity. Even if we vet refugees, that won't stop the threat, the congressman said, adding that refugees could become radicalized after they get here.
"We cannot stick our heads in the sand and say somehow we are not bringing this upon ourselves," King said, adding that we are witnessing a "slow-motion cultural suicide in America," just one generation behind Europe.
Hetfield said in earlier testimony that "xenophobia" and "Islamaphobia" over the refugee issue are driving a deeper wedge between Muslims and the rest of the world, which in his estimation is much more worrisome, and makes the United States more vulnerable to attack.
"It's absolutely unfortunate and ridiculous" for our political leadership "dehumanize and vilify a whole faith community," Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab-American Association of New York, who attended the hearing, said in an interview.
"I was beyond words," she said of King's remarks during the hearing.
"We need to follow the leadership of the president and stand firm," Sarsour said. "The people that lose are humans, are young children, are widows, are people who've seen trauma and torture. The same terrorism we're talking about is what they've experienced and we're telling them we don't care.
"As an American, I'm very disappointed," she said.
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