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PolitiFact article quoting ICSVE director Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.
June 13, 2016
Blaming the Orlando massacre on the country’s “failed immigration system,” Donald Trump equated refugee admission to a “better, bigger, more horrible version of the legendary Trojan horse.”
Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, vowed to suspend immigration from “areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States” in his speech on terrorism and immigration.
“Altogether, under the Clinton plan, you’d be admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East with no system to vet them, or to prevent the radicalization of their children,” Trump said June 13. “The burden is on Hillary Clinton to tell us why she believes immigration from these dangerous countries should be increased without any effective system to screen.”
We examinef the number of refugees Clinton wants to admit in a separate fact-check, but here we’ll look at whether there really is “no system to vet them.”
This is an exaggeration, and one we’ve heard before.
While Trump has a point that the system isn’t foolproof, there is a system. It has been in place for over three decades and was retooled after 9/11.
The system (which exists) and how it works
The vetting begins with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee, which determines who counts as a refugee, who should be resettled (about 1 percent) and which countries would take them. This alone can take four to 10 months.
If the UNHCR refers refugees to the United States, they then face scrutiny from federal intelligence and security agencies.
Their names, biographical information and fingerprints are run through federal terrorism and criminal databases. Meanwhile, the refugees are interviewed by Department of Homeland Security officials. If approved, they then undergo a medical screening, a match with sponsor agencies, “cultural orientation” classes and one final security clearance.
Syrian refugees in particular must clear one additional hurdle. Their documents are placed under extra scrutiny and cross-referenced with classified and unclassified information.
The process typically takes one to two years or longer and happens before a refuge ever steps onto American soil. Ultimately, says the State Department, about half are approved, and there’s no real precedent of a terrorist slipping in through the vetting system.
Not a perfect system
There’s no question that there are challenges to screening refugees from conflict zones like Syria. Intelligence and national security officials have noted the paucity of data.
The head of the National Counterterrorism Center told Congress in October 2015 that the intelligence in Syria is “not as rich as we would like it to be,” while FBI Director James Comey said there are “gaps” in data availability.
The use of fake documents and passports are also causes for concern, according to Jessica Vaughan of the “low immigration, pro-immigrant” Center for Immigration Studies.
But, again, this is not the same thing as “no system to vet” at all.
“No system is foolproof,” said David Martin, a University of Virginia professor who’s previously held posts at DHS and the State Department. “If we really wanted a foolproof system, we would shut down immigration entirely.”
(This seems to be what Trump is advocating.)
According to the State Department, Syrians tend to have more identity documents than other refugee groups around the world, and the reasons they give for missing documents — for example, a bomb dropping on their house — can be verified.
And contrary to what Trump suggests, Clinton has spoken about stepping up the rigor of the vetting and proposed specific solutions.
“Congress needs to provide enough resources to ensure we have sufficient personnel deployed to run the most thorough possible process,” she said in a December 2015 statement.
Finally, we should note that refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any traveler category to the United States. So it “makes no operational sense” for ISIS to take advantage of the refugee program, Anne Speckhard, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, told us previously.
“Given how easy it is to send a European extremist to the U.S. via Europe, why would an ISIS guy in Syria wait the three years it takes to get refugee status?” Speckhard said.
Trump said there is “no system to vet” refugees from the Middle East.
While there are concerns about information gaps, a system does exist and has existed since 1980. It involves multiple federal intelligence and security agencies as well as the United Nations. Refugee vetting typically takes one to two years and includes numerous rounds of security checks.
We rate Trump’s claim False.