Statement for the Record of the Niskanen Center
Submitted to
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs
Hearing on
“The Impact of ISIS on the Homeland and Refugee Resettlement”
November 19, 2015

The terrorist attack in Paris has led to inquiries concerning the security of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Lawmakers and the public should be able to feel confident that the program does not compromise the safety of Americans. A thorough understanding of the USRAP process and the history of the program leads us to conclude that not only are refugees unlikely to become terrorists, they can be important assets in the war against the Islamic State.

The Paris attacks are not applicable to the U.S. refugee vetting process

All of the confirmed Paris attackers, including the mastermind, were natives of Europe, highlighting the fact that homegrown terrorism played a more significant role in these attacks than terrorism originating abroad.[1] A fake Syrian passport, copies of which have reportedly been used by as many as eight individuals in Europe,[2] was found near the body of one of the attackers, leading to the suspicion that a Syrian national may have been involved in the attack.[3]

The passport holder apparently entered the European Union (EU) on a boat from Turkey through Greece and applied for asylum in Serbia.[4] According to German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, however, the passport may have been a “planted lead.” He said that it is “certainly unusual that such a person would have faithfully registered in Greece and Serbia and Croatia, while we’re constantly pressing for registration and aren’t happy that is isn’t happening to the necessary extent.”[5] Other E.U. attackers were found to have had fake Turkish passports in an apparent attempt to mislead investigators, and French police believe that they have also been trying to stigmatize refugees.[6]

Even supposing that the attacker was a Syrian national, this would imply nothing about the U.S. refugee resettlement process. This individual was not vetted by intelligence agencies, designated as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), or granted refugee status by any country. This case is simply not applicable to the U.S. refugee program, which requires extensive vetting prior to admission. Unfortunately, Europe does not have the same screening capabilities as the United States.

The U.S. refugee program is not an attractive avenue for terrorist activity

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is, according to the State Department, “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States.”[7] The process for most refugees, including all Syrian refugees, begins with designation as a refugee by UNHCR. The UN only refers refugees for resettlement if they have no hope of returning to their country of origin, and there is a complicating factor requiring their resettlement outside of the area. Examples include ethnic or religious persecution, health issues, or children with special needs. UNHCR refers less than one percent of the 14.4 million refugees for resettlement.[8] A terrorist, looking to gain entry to the U.S. through UNHCR refugee referral, would have very low odds of even getting through this initial vetting.

If a refugee is referred to the United States for resettlement, overseas Resettlement Support Centers managed by the State Department collect biometric and biographical information from the applicants. This information is then immediately compared to the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), which includes terrorist watch list information.[9] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services refugee officers with special training for Syrians and Iraqis then interview the applicants.[10] They attempt to find inconsistencies in the applicant’s statements and test whether the person has firsthand knowledge of events that they claim to have witnessed.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and other security agencies check the information gathered against information held by the government. Biometric checks are then conducted. These databases include the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System. Individuals are also run through the DOD’s Automated Biometric Identification System, which contains fingerprints from weapons and explosives of Iraqi insurgents.[11]

This entire process takes between two and three years, during which time the refugee remains in UNHCR refugee camps. The intensity and length of the refugee screening process makes it an unlikely avenue for terrorist infiltration. It would require a two- to three-year investment with no certainty that the mission will result in resettlement in the U.S. There are much faster and less closely scrutinized legal channels through which an individual can enter the United States, such as a student or tourist visa. Because Syrians are likely to raise suspicion, the Islamic State is much more likely to send an attacker with a European passport through those channels. It makes no sense for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. to infiltrate the refugee resettlement process.

The history of U.S. resettlement demonstrates that the vetting process works

Since 1980, the U.S. has welcomed about three million refugees, including hundreds of thousands from the Middle East. Since 9/11, more than 750,000 have been resettled, including a large population from Iraq. Over that period, there have been dozens of terrorist attacks on American soil but not one of them involved refugees[12] brought over under the U.S. refugee resettlement program.[13] This fact alone demonstrates that the U.S. refugee vetting process and law enforcement can together handle threats of terrorism.

There have been, according to the State Department, about a dozen cases in which refugees have been convicted of terrorism-related charges. All were caught well before their plans could be carried out and most were not targeting the United States.[14] These cases show that the threat of refugee-related terrorism is one that is manageable through law enforcement and also very small. It amounts to one person linked to terrorism for every 494,000 refugee admissions. For comparison, note that one out of every 23,000 Americans committed murder last year.[15] And, again, none of the small number of refugee conspirators succeeded in killing anyone.

The U.S. government does not report refugee applicants rejected based on terrorism-related concerns, so there is no way to verify how often the process screens out terrorists, assuming such individuals do apply. But the refugee resettlement caseload only has a 50 percent approval rate (including pending cases),[16] and at least one terrorist, the Los Angeles airport shooter in 2002, had his asylum claim rejected due to vetting.[17]

Moreover, if ISIS wanted to attack the United States, it need only dispatch one of the many foreign fighters who have come from the U.S. or the E.U. to do so. It would not need to attempt a two to three-year mission with a very low probability of success.

Accepting Syrian refugees is an important part of the fight against ISIS

Since 2011, more than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria, meaning that about 140 people have died every single day in Syria. The result has been an exodus of over 4 million people from Syria. The Islamic State considers the fugitives from its “caliphate” to be traitors and have repeatedly condemned the flight of Muslims from the region. Its propaganda describes the abandonment of their caliphate as apostasy, which is punishable by death in ISIS-controlled territory.[18]

If the United States announced that it would no longer accept refugees from Syria and Iraq, ISIS would immediately incorporate into their propaganda the message that America and the West despise Muslims so much that they are willing to push them back to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous dictatorship. Combating ISIS propaganda is as important as any weapon the U.S. has. Since the beginning of the conflict, every single ISIS fighter killed has been replaced by a new recruit or foreign fighter.[19] The U.S. and its moderate Muslim allies have little chance of winning the actual war without winning the propaganda war.

Some have suggested the creation of a “safe zone” or “humanitarian corridor” as an alternative to refugee resettlement. Whether this is a good idea or not, it does not replace refugee resettlement or solve the refugee crisis. There already is a de facto “safe zone” in Turkey that refugees are abandoning due to its squalid and dangerous conditions. Extending that safe zone down a few miles into Syria will not change the equation for most Syrians or would-be refugees.

Safe zones have also historically had a very mixed record. In 1994, the French established a safe zone in Rwanda to stem the tide of refugees into Zaire, but it did not prevent an exodus from the country once the French left.[20] In 1995, the U.S. attempted to support a safe city in Bosnia for Muslims who were victims of ethnic cleansing. The city ultimately became a target for attacks and failed to protect the civilian population.[21] In 2009, a United Nations safe zone for refugees in Sri Lanka was attacked by the Tamil Tigers organization.[22] Whether a safe zone can protect some civilians in this case is unclear, but it certainly will not curb the refugee crisis.

Safe zones will also not alleviate the need for the U.N. to resettle refugees in special humanitarian circumstances. U.N. camps cannot provide for the needs of many refugees with special health or mental issues, cannot meet childcare needs, or protect refugees from persecution in the countries in which they currently reside. Refugees also cannot hope to become self-sufficient in refugee camps. This fact partly explains the large numbers who flee camps in search of opportunity in Europe.

During the Cold War, we used refugee resettlement to gain foreign policy assets, spies, allies, and spokesmen to refute the enemy’s propaganda. In the fight against ISIS, allies gained from aiding refugees will be as important as any weapon we have.


The U.S. should resettle the full 20,000 refugees referred by UNHCR on the condition that they take a loyalty oath, publicly condemning the Islamic State—an act of further apostasy under its law—and expressing their support for freedom of religion. America closing its doors during the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time would open a dark chapter in our history. We must address security concerns about refugees without abandoning our moral leadership in the world.



[1] The New York Times. “Finding Links Between the Paris Attackers as the Manhunt Continues.” November 18, 2015.

[2] Drury, Iain. “The Syrian passports to terror: EIGHT migrants have got into Europe with same papers as those found on stadium suicide bomber.” Daily Mail. November 18, 2015.

[3] Walker, Marcus; Noemie Bisserbe. “Paris Stadium Attacker Got to Europe Using Fake Syrian Passport.” Wall Street Journal. November 16, 2015.

[4] Maltezou, Renee; George Georgiopoulos. “Holder of Syrian passport found in Paris traveled through Balkans.” Reuters. November 15, 2015.

[5] Donahue, Patrick; Rainer Buergin. “Syrian Passport in Paris May Be Planted, German Minister Says.” Bloomberg. November 17, 2015.

[6] CTV, “Police believe attackers used forged passports to stigmatize refugees.” CTV. November 17, 2015.

[7] Koran, Laura. “How do Syrian refugees get into the U.S.? Explaining the process.” CNN, November 17, 2015.

[8] UNHCR. “Resettlement: A New Beginning in a Third Country.” UNHCR. Accessed November 9, 2015.

[9] Barbara Strack. “Terorist Exploitation of Refugee Programs.” USCIS Testimony for House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcomittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. December 4, 2012.

[10] Foley, Elise. “Refugee Screenings Are More Intensive Than Some Politicians Would Have You Think.” Huffington Post. November 17, 2015.

[11] Barbara Strack. “Terrorist Exploitation of Refugee Programs.” USCIS Testimony for House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcomittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. December 4, 2012.

[12] Some have claimed that the Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, change this conclusion. But the brothers were not refugees. Their parents came to the U.S. on a travel visa and were awarded asylum—which is not subject to the normal UNHCR referral process—and the brothers were young children and not subject to the vetting process. This case simply does not show that refugees cannot be vetted properly. Even if we do include asylees—and their foreign-born children—in this analysis, the risk of terrorism from an asylee or refugee is less than a million-to-one chance, one in every 1.8 million admissions. Bump, Phillip. “How the Boston Bombing Suspect Became a U.S. Citizen.” The Wire. April 19, 2013.

[13] Bier, David. “Anti-Immigrant Activists More Prone to Terrorism Than Refugees.” The Hill. September 29, 2015.

[14] Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. “The viral claim that ‘not one’ refugee resettled since 9/11 has been ‘arrested on domestic terrorism charges’.” Washington Post. November 19, 2015.

Bier, David. “Anti-Immigrant Activists More Prone to Terrorism Than Refugees.” The Hill. September 29, 2015.

Ashford, Ben. “America’s ‘enemies within’.” Daily Mail. November 18, 2015.

[15] Nowrasteh, Alex. “Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat.” Cato Institute. November 18, 2015.

[16] Foley, Elise. “Refugee Screenings Are More Intensive Than Some Politicians Would Have You Think.” Huffington Post. November 17, 2015.

[17] Eddy Ramirez. “Panel Probes LAX Gunman.” LA Times. October 10, 2002.

[18] Zelin, Aaron. “Targeting Europe’s Refugees Is Not the Answer.” Washington Institute. November 16, 2015.

[19] Naylor, Sean. “Airstrikes Killing Thousands of Islamic State Fighters, but It Just Recruits More.” Foreign Policy. June 9, 2015.

[20] Haspeslagh, Sophie. “Safe Havens in Rwanda: Operation Turquoise.” Beyond Intractability.

[21] Editors. “Srebrenica: A U.N. ‘Safe Haven’ That Soon Was Not.” New York Times. October 29, 1995.

[22] Buncombe, Andrew. “Massacre in the Sri Lanka ‘safe zone’.” Independent. October 23, 2011.

This post was updated.