Recent news reports have detailed the arrest of two notorious aliens in the United States: a former Nazi collaborator who purportedly worked at the Trawniki forced labor camp and an alleged ISIS fighter and murderer who was granted refugee status in the United States. Each of those cases points out weaknesses in our immigration system.
First, the alleged terrorist. According to Bay Area news station KRON, Omar Ameen, a 45-year-old Iraqi national, is believed by authorities to have led an ISIS convoy in Iraq in June 2014, 17 days after he was granted refugee status in the United States by "claiming to be a victim of terrorism". There, he allegedly killed a police officer in the town of Rawah after that town had been occupied by the terror group. Five months later, he came to the United States and resettled in Sacramento as a refugee.
He had previously fled Iraq to Turkey in 2012, having been charged along with his three brothers with terrorism in Iraq in 2010. (My colleague Nayla Rush has also written about this case.)
Court documents referenced by KRON say that Ameen "helped create an al-Qaida terror cell [in 2004] and became close with an eventual founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi."
President Trump issued Executive Order 13,769 (EO-1), captioned "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" on January 27, 2017. In that executive order, the president directed the secretary of State to suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days "to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States," and to implement those procedures. It also suspended the admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely.
A January 29, 2017, article in the New York Times written in response to that order asserted that "Refugees Entering the U.S. Already Face a Rigorous Vetting Process". That article stated: "The current screening process for all refugees involves many layers of security checks before entry into the country. ... Sometimes, the process ... takes up to two years."
Notwithstanding the "rigorous" nature of that vetting process, it apparently failed as it relates to Ameen, particularly given the fact that according to Reuters, there was still a significant U.S. presence in Iraq in 2010 (at the time that he was charged there with terrorism), yet he nonetheless was still able to secure approval of his refugee application approximately four years later.
The most obvious conclusion is that the president's concerns related to the threat posed by potential refugees to the United States, as expressed in his travel orders, was far from overblown, as the New York Times and other media outlets suggested.
For example, in February 2017, CBS News quoted "Benjamin Webb, who just left DHS after serving as executive director of Customs and Border Protection's office of planning, analysis and requirements", and who described refugees as "the most carefully screened people that we allow into our borders."
That article further stated:
Webb finds it difficult to imagine what measures could be taken to make the vetting any more rigorous.
"I don't know what extreme vetting's supposed to be. I mean, are you going to waterboard them or something?" said Webb. "They have to follow a strict protocol. They're monitored for two years. That would be the least efficient way for a terrorist to get into the United States."
Similarly, the Washington Post published a column in February 2017 authored by Natasha Hall, who was described as a "former immigration officer". Referencing EO-1, Hall stated: "Whoever wrote this order is evidently not aware that these screenings, procedures and questions already exist." She concluded her description of the refugee vetting process with the following:
All this information is available to Trump. The only explanation for his order is that the president is using refugees to appeal to his base at the expense of national security.
As a former longtime government employee, I understand as well as anyone that accidents happen and that even the most stringent vetting process is not foolproof. That does not suggest, however, that stories like Ameen's do not justify assessment of and, where needed, a tightening of USRAP.
Next, the Nazi collaborator. As ABC News reported, on August 20, 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents took 95-year-old Jakiw Palij from his Queens, N.Y., home and removed him to Germany the next day. According to the Justice Department (DOJ), Palij, who was born in an area of Poland that is presently part of Ukraine and immigrated to the United States in 1949 by concealing his wartime activities, told department officials in 2001 that:
[H]e was trained at the SS Training Camp in Trawniki, in Nazi-occupied Poland, in the spring of 1943. Documents subsequently filed in court by the Justice Department showed that men who trained at Trawniki participated in implementing the Third Reich's plan to murder Jews in Poland, code-named "Operation Reinhard." On Nov. 3, 1943, some 6,000 Jewish men, women and children incarcerated at Trawniki were shot to death in one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust. By helping to prevent the escape of these prisoners during his service at Trawniki, Palij played an indispensable role in ensuring that they later met their tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis. [Emphasis added.]
Despite the appalling nature of these offenses, and the fact that "Palij lied about his Nazi past to immigrate to this country and then fraudulently become an American citizen," it took almost 13 years to effectuate his removal.
In May 2002, DOJ's then-Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York filed a complaint to revoke Palij's citizenship. His citizenship was revoked by a federal judge in August 2003, "based on his wartime activities and postwar immigration fraud," and he was placed into removal proceedings. He was eventually ordered removed by an immigration judge in August 2004 to "Ukraine, Poland or Germany, or any other country that would admit him." His appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals was denied in December 2005, but he remained in the United States despite being under a final order of removal.
ABC News explained that Palij's removal was "stymied by Germany's reluctance to take him in", because he was not a German citizen. It was only when Germany was pressed by the Trump administration that that country agreed to accept Palij.
The United States' will and ability to remove persecutors and war criminals is a necessary counterpart to this nation's readiness to accept asylees and refugees. Without putting too fine a point on it, those who engage in human rights abuses abroad should never find safe haven in the United States. It is a disservice to their victims, and an abuse of this country's openness to foreign nationals to allow those who have abused the rights of others and who themselves have received the full due process rights guaranteed by our Constitution to remain, unmolested here.
Moreover, such treatment encourages others who have engaged in similar heinous acts more recently to seek sanctuary here. That two previous administrations failed to exert the diplomatic pressure necessary to effectuate the removal of an individual accused of such offenses is a scandal. Kudos to the Trump administration for effectuating Palij's removal, however the United States must continue to use the full force of its diplomatic authority and power to return every persecutor and war criminal to face justice.