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Senate Focuses Refugee Debate on Canada

WASHINGTON (CN) - Refugee-resettlement arguments turned north of the border Wednesday as Capitol Hill studied Canada's plans this year to take in 34,000 people fleeing Syria.

This geographical shift occurred in a hearing this morning of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, called to ensure that the screening procedures Canada's government has in place will be enough to prevent Islamic State sympathizers from entering the country as refugees, leaving them just a small step from the United States.

"It's far more difficult to try to get information, we've heard in testimony before this committee, in a war-torn country like Syria," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said during his opening statements. "So how can you do the proper vetting? How can we ensure there are no shortcuts taken? That's really the purpose of this hearing."

Recently elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during last year's election to accept 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015, but Guidy Mamann, senior partner at an immigration law firm based in Toronto, said at the hearing only 6,000 refugees actually made it into the country under that deadline.

To ensure the government still met its promise, Canada extended the deadline by two months, but promised to accept an additional 25,000 people by the end of 2016, Mamann said.

This compressed deadline and increased number of refugees could put a "tremendous pressure" on Canada's screening process, Mamann warned.

Other witnesses at the hearing contrasted the large number of refugees Canada plans to accept against numbers put forward in the United States.

"If the extensive U.S. intelligence system would have trouble security screening 10,000 Syrians in a year, how likely is it that Canada, even with valuable U.S. assistance, could adequately screen 2 1/2 times that number in four months?" asked David Harris, director of the International Intelligence Program at INSIGNIS Strategic Research in Ottawa.

Much like the counterargument to restricting refugee resettlement in the United States, proponents of the Canadian resettlement pointed out the screening process for refugees is robust.

Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the screening process in Canada is as rigorous as the one used in the United States, and includes background checks that cover biometric and biologic data screenings.

"This is an automatic process, not something that officials can decide to do or not do," Dawson added.

The screenings also involve significant United States cooperation and the group of refugees Canada has committed to accepting only includes "low risk groups" like families with children rather than the single men who typically fit the terrorist profile, Dawson said.

The familiar refrain that the refugee program is too rigorous for terrorists to exploit effectively also appeared at the hearing.

"What I said anecdotally is that an ISIS person would have to be crazy or stupid to try to get here on our most closely vetted program," Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said, before comparing the Canadian system to the U.S. program.

Harris countered that even a miniscule 1 percent failure rate in the program could allow as many as 20 terrorist units into the country.

That's all it took for the attack on Paris last year, Harris said.

"I would suggest it is time for us in Canada to really revisit our immigration and refugee numbers at large so we can insure we'll have the kinds of integration that really will count," Harris said.

After the hearing, Carper fell back on a common refrain from people supportive of immigration by saying threats from Canadian refugees are dwarfed by those from homegrown extremists with no connection to the program.

"Again, we know every day there's a risk to our country," Carper told reporters. "And the greatest risk of all comes from not so much people coming along to this country embedded in a refugee group. The greatest risk is from people that are American citizens who become radicalized."

Still others at the hearing, including Dawson and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Democratic governments help create new terrorists by forcing vulnerable refugees to remain in dangerous countries, where they are more vulnerable to ISIS influence.

"If you want to radicalize young people, that is the way to do it," Dawson told the committee. "Bring them into a community, put them in school, reintegrate them into society. That is the beset hedge against radicalization."

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