Hearing on Syrian Refugees: Reassurance and Storytelling

By Nayla Rush on October 13, 2015

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing earlier this month titled "Oversight of the Administration's FY 2016 Refugee Resettlement Program: Fiscal and Security Implications". The hearing followed Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that the U.S. plans on increasing the number of refugees it admits every year. The FY 2015 target of 70,000 was supposed to be increased to 75,000 for FY2016, but the final number was 85,000 with the addition of 10,000 more Syrians. The number for FY 2017 is expected to be 100,000.

Senator Jeff Sessions, Chairman of the Senate's Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, presided over the hearing, which included testimony from four administration officials in charge of administering the refugee program. (See links to their written statements here.)

The witnesses addressed the concerns outlined by Sen. Sessions regarding costs, security, and access to government benefits. All four officials were, understandably, quite reassuring.

The problem was not so much in the four testimonies per se. True, they were more akin to platitudes than real information, but this is to be expected from government officials confined within the "politically correct" sphere and whose agenda is to reassure the public.

Statements relating to national security sounded like a broken record:

"Our program is committed to deterring and detecting fraud among those seeking to resettle in the United States, and applicants to our program are subject to more intensive security than any other type of traveler to the U.S. to protect against threats to our national security." (Larry Bartlett, State Department)

"We're committed to deterring and detecting fraud among those seeking to resettle and we continue to employ the highest security measures to protect against risks to our national security." (Barbara Strack, USCIS)

What was more telling about this hearing was the absence of specific answers (and possibly even knowledge) regarding important matters.

On the issue of the availability and sources of the added funding needed to process the increased number of refugees, witnesses vaguely referred to "reprioritizing between programs" and "looking across our programs to see where we can gain efficiencies."

When asked by Sen. Sessions, "Can you, any of you tell me how many people who've been given refugee status since 2001 have been identified as affiliated with terrorism in any manner?" not one of the government experts on the panel could give a number.

During the hearing, Senator Sessions quoted comments by Michael Steinbach, Assistant Director of the FBI, before the House Committee on Homeland Security in February, where he alluded to the lack of dependable screening measures of Syrian refugees:

The concern in Syria is that we don't have systems in places on the ground to collect information to vet...You're talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure, so to speak. So all of the dataset, the police, the intel services that normally you would go to to seek information doesn't exist.

When Sessions asked Matthew Emrich from the Department of Homeland Security whether he shared Steinbach's concerns, Emrich remained vague: "I will tell you that we often find valuable information and that we check every single thing that is available to us."

When pressed to answer, Emrich admitted that, "In many countries of the world from which we have traditionally accepted refugees over the years, the United States government did not have extensive data holdings."

The exchange did not end here. Sessions further inquired whether Emrich had the ability to access trustworthy independent data to help identify the majority of the people interviewed. Emrich claimed that they were "in many cases able to find independent data." Sessions wanted a concrete appraisal: "Can you tell us? Is it less than 20 percent or more than 80 percent?" "I can't give you a number," Emrich replied.

Likewise, Strack did not know whether the parents of the Boston bombers came from Chechnya as refugees: "I would need to check with my colleagues, sir."

One would assume this type of information is available to government officials in charge of refugee matters.

In any case, and instead of straightforward answers, the witnesses delivered the obligatory dose of storytelling, which often, when it comes to matters of immigration, has to include an "American Dream story." Robert Carey, head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services, told the story of a Kurdish refugee named Rekan (though his written statement included a story about a refugee from Eritrea instead) who "is representative of the determination I see in so many of the refugees who arrive in our country. Despite unimaginable hardships, violence, and oppression, they arrive seeking opportunity, not handouts, and opportunity to give back to their communities and achieve the American dream."

Senator Durbin, who intervened during the hearing and is in favor of admitting at least 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 (way above the announced 10,000), had also some personal information to share. He recounted his own story as the son of an immigrant mother from Lithuania and the neighbor of "two Bosnian Muslims who are the hardest-working people" he knows. Durbin also introduced Hussam Al Roustom, present in the audience, a Syrian refugee who arrived to the U.S. in June of this year, who "now works two jobs, moves furniture during the day and is a baker at night in order to support his family", who "is not a terrorist, and not a fiscal drain on America", urging us to "be proud that our country has welcomed Al Roustom and his family."

He also mentioned "Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant" as another example of those who "turned out to be pretty successful." (It's not clear what Durbin meant by that, as Jobs was adopted by an American couple, Paul and Clara Jobs; Steve never wanted to meet his Syrian biological father – "I learned a little bit about him and I didn't like what I learned" – and actually it was Paul Jobs who passed on to Steve his passion for mechanics.)

But, let us be agreeable. We have no reason to doubt Sen. Durbin's neighbors or Al Roustom's ideal refugee profile. And perhaps having a Syrian refugee as a biological father did contribute to Steve Jobs' success. But that is beside the point, as individual cases (more so exceptional ones) do not define the norm. And storytelling, no matter how heartfelt, should in no way guide policymakers.

Sen. Durbin stressed the fact that, when it comes to the issue of refugees, "we are talking about real lives and real people." True.

But when it comes to legal processes, financial costs, impact on communities, health, national security etc. real answers are in order. That is not what this month's hearing provided.

There is one last note about this hearing worthy of mention here.

On the subject of the possible use of mass parole to admit Syrians outside the statutory process for refugees, Strack did inform us that a letter signed by 70 members of Congress was sent to USCIS asking the administration to consider establishing a "Syrian Family Reunification Parole Program" (modeled on similar end-runs around the law for Cubans and Haitians). This would mean, according to Strack, "a relative in the United States could petition on behalf of a close relative, and if that beneficiary was Syrian, the recommendation was that we consider granting parole to that Syrian beneficiary."

Strack added that an earlier decision not to go forward with such a program could be revisited: "My leadership has agreed that they would take another look at that program. It doesn't mean that the decision will change, but they have agreed to consider it."

Will the public be informed of the outcome of this new appraisal? And, if the decision is positive, will details be released as to how many could benefit from such a program, and whether this number falls under next year's 10,000 addition?

We may have to wait for another hearing to get answers – if then.