This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America here.
As the first wave of Syrian refugees settle into new homes in the United States, the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-Texas) has been raising fears that people who have fled political violence are a threat to America.
“I think this would be a huge mistake if we bring [Syrian refugees] into the United States that could potentially be radicalized,” he said. “I am worried that [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)] could exploit this effort in order to deploy operatives to America via a federally funded jihadi pipeline.”
McCaul’s efforts to curtail the refugee resettlement program are part of a larger trend in Western countries that is exacerbating the Syrian refugee crisis by using anti-immigrant, Islamophobic sentiment to avoid resettlement responsibilities. In recent years, the program has raised its security standards and is considered successful by resettlement professionals.
The most vulnerable
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) takes measures to prevent exploitation of the program; if it didn’t, member states would not want to participate in resettlement. And every year, the United States admits 70,000 refugees for resettlement from conflict zones around the world. It admitted 132 Syrians last year — a drop in the bucket — but Houston-based UNHCR representative Alia Khatar-Williams told me UNHCR has referred 12,000 Syrian cases to the United States to over the next several years.
Before referral to the United States, refugees must pass through multiple in-depth and in-person interviews. Resettlement is an exclusionary process, meaning any discrepancy or perceived security risk warrants disqualifying a refugee from moving forward.
After referral from the UNHCR, cases are transferred to the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration where refugees begin the second phase of screenings. The process includes a series of in-depth interviews by well-trained Homeland Security officers, who cross-reference multiple databases as they perform biographic and biometric investigations on candidates. Interagency cooperation between the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other partners in the national intelligence community are essential to make sure that the U.S. refugee resettlement and asylum programs are secure.
“The Department of Homeland Security has significantly strengthened and enhanced its existing security check process for refugees in recent years,” says Stacie Blake, Director of Government and Community Relations at the United States Center for Refugees and Immigration, “They have never been stronger.”
The UNHCR actively seeks out the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement. After four years of massacres and barrel bombings, 3.9 million Syrians have registered with the agency.
“We’re talking about people who have been tortured, about children who have not been able to attend school for four years, and about women who have been living not even in refugee camps but in urban settings in abject poverty without adequate water, blankets or heat in the winter,” Blake says, on the incoming Syrian refugees.
Syrians leading the fight
To imply that Syrians are indistinguishable from ISIL also ignores the fact that both Syrians and Syrian Americans were the first to warn against the rise of ISIL and currently lead the battle against this militant group.
In 2013, Syrian activists warned the international community against the rise of militant extremist groups after requests for protection from the Bashar al-Assad regime’s massacres were ignored. In January 2014, seven months before American air strikes were launched against ISIL, Syrian civilians in opposition areas launched a protest movement and armed rebellion against ISIL in northern Syria. In fact, the armed Syrian opposition is one of the few groups fighting and winning battles against ISIL on the ground. Stateside, the Syrian American Council, a national organization with 22 chapters across the country, called for airstrikes against ISIL seven months before the U.S. air campaign began over Syrian airspace. What’s more, the vast majority of members of ISIL are not even Syrian but foreign fighters who are oppressing hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under its rule and creating thousands of these very refugees.
It’s also important to note that the Syrian American community is leading humanitarian relief and development efforts for vulnerable Syrians abroad, preventing people from defecting to ISIL out of desperation for the financial assistance they offer. Twelve million Syrians inside Syria are in dire need of aid, making humanitarian relief and development essential in the fight against ISIL.
My organization, the Houston chapter of the Syrian American Council, took Syrian American constituents to meet with McCaul’s office in Katy, Texas, in January. We shared our anti-Assad and anti-ISIL sentiments and went on to explain how some members of the delegation initially came to America as refugees and ended up running successful businesses in Texas.
His office responded by saying that they would log our comments and complaints and thanked us for coming. We later reached out to meet with his office to discuss the Congressman’s concerns on incoming Syrian refugees, but have not heard back after multiple follow-ups.
In June, the Syrian American Council came together for town hall meetings with the Secretary of Homeland Security to discuss, among other things, the efforts of Syrian Americans in working with DHS against extremist groups such as ISIL and al-Qaeda. McCaul’s fear of “potential radicalization” of Syrian refugees is unwarranted considering that refugees will integrate into a Syrian American community with a record of pro-democracy, human rights, and anti-terrorism initiatives.
In the midst of a global refugee crisis, McCaul’s attack on the resettlement program is part of an Islamophobic anti-immigration stance adopted by right-wing politicians in several Western countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has committed to resettling less than 1,000 Syrians and has only resettled about 187 families so far, despite calls from the UN for rich countries to take in more.
There are two countries leading the resettlement effort: Germany and Sweden have pledged to take in 30,000 and 2,700 refugees respectively, with Sweden implementing an “open-door” policy to Syrians beyond the UNHCR referrals. In opposition to this policy, anti-immigration Swedish Democrats have gained seats in parliament.
Considering that ISIL is made up of over 25,000 international fighters, many from Western countries, who have gone to wreak havoc in Syria, it is necessary for rich nations to open the door and welcome refugees looking to escape the chaos. Those who have fled the violence in Syria want, arguably more than anyone else, a world free from extremism.