Friday, December 11, 2015

Response from Rep. Andy Barr re: Syrian refugees

I received the following response to my letter to Rep. Andy Barr in regards to his vote to halt resettling of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere). I post without comment other than to point out his comment about having access to classified information in making his decisions (I still disagree with his vote):

Dear Mr. Tapp,

Thank you for contacting me regarding the President's plan to increase dramatically next year the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. I understand this issue is important to you and appreciate the time you took to contact me.

Since Syria's civil war began in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have left that war-torn country, seeking refuge in neighboring countries and another 7.6 million have been forced from their homes but remain displaced within Syria. This mass migration is the result of attacks against the indigenous population by President Bashar Assad's forces and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The exodus of Syrians from their home country has accelerated over the past year as it has become clear that the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. More than 744,000 refugees and migrants have escaped to Europe this year alone, according to the refugee agency of the United Nations.

Without question, this refugee crisis is a humanitarian tragedy of untold proportions and it warrants a global response. Most of the refugees have sought asylum in Europe or neighboring countries like Jordan. But the United States has also accepted many of these refugees. 

The United States has a long and proud history of providing safe haven for many of the world's most vulnerable refugees, and we take in a million legal immigrants every year, including refugees seeking asylum to escape persecution. Since the conflict began in Syria in 2011, in addition to accepting Syrian refugees, the United States has donated over $4.5 billion, more than any other country, making us the largest donor by far of humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians. So the United States takes a backseat to no other nation when it comes to fulfilling our humanitarian obligations. 

That said, Congress has an even greater obligation to look out for the interests of our own citizens, and we must not allow terrorists to exploit refugee resettlement to gain entry into the United States. The Obama Administration has announced plans to surge admissions of Syrian refugees into the United States by at least 10,000 over the course of this fiscal year. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, many national security experts have questioned the wisdom of this expanded refugee resettlement policy. 

We are all extremely saddened and outraged by the recent events in Paris--horrific, tragic acts for which ISIL has assumed responsibility. We know that so far, at least one of the attackers responsible for these brutal attacks was admitted into the European Union through Greece as a Syrian refugee, confirming intelligence reports that ISIL is embedding terrorists within groups of fleeing Syrian refugees. 

The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that Islamic terrorists have two basic goals: First, to enter the United States. And second, to carry out deadly attacks when they get here. ISIL terrorists have said repeatedly that "American blood is best, and we will taste it soon." I take them at their word, and believe they will use any means possible to enter the United States, including through our refugee programs, just as they did in Europe. 

This belief is well-informed. A recent report from the House Homeland Security Committee concluded that Islamist terrorists are determined to infiltrate refugee flows to enter the West. In addition to the Paris attacker who entered Europe through refugee flows, an international terrorism research organization published a bulletin in September warning that there were already a number of reported cases of ISIL infiltration of refugee routes. 

In addition, top U.S. counterterrorism officials have been warning for months that the intelligence on the ground in Syria is insufficient to thoroughly vet individuals traveling to the United States from the conflict zone. It is difficult to determine whether Syria asylum-seekers are who they claim to be or whether they have ties to terrorist groups. FBI Director James Comey testified in October to the Homeland Security Committee that "we can query our databases until the cows come home, but nothing will show up because we have no record of that person...You can only query what you have collected."

This unclassified information confirms what I learned in a recent classified briefing with Director Comey, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and top State Department officials in charge of our refugee programs. While I obviously cannot divulge the details of the classified briefing, I am permitted to say that as a result of that briefing, I have much less confidence in our ability to confidently screen refugees from the Syrian conflict zone. This also corroborates what U.S. Embassy personnel in Amman, Jordan told me during my visit to the Middle East in October. 

Given these security gaps, it is entirely appropriate and in the interest of our national security to pause the resettlement program until the nation's top security officials certify that the screening process meets the highest standards and that each individual refugee does not pose a security threat. Until there is a certification program in place that we can trust to prevent terrorist threats in the United States, the Administration's plan to surge Syrian refugees should be suspended. 

For these reasons, on November 19, I voted for and the House passed H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, by a strong bipartisan vote of 289-137. In addition to the security checks already conducted by the United States Immigration and Citizenship Services under existing law, this legislation would require a comprehensive background investigation of every refugee from Iraq or Syria before they can be admitted into the United States, and a certification that each does not pose a threat. Specifically, it requires the FBI Director to certify the integrity of the vetting process to make sure we are not inadvertently admitting individuals with terrorist ties or who pose a threat to the United States. It also requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, along with the FBI Director and the Director of National Intelligence, to certify to Congress that each refugee is not a security threat. Finally, the bill mandates that the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General independently assess refugee approvals in order to ensure that high-risk individuals do not slip through the cracks. This measure now awaits action in the Senate, where I am hopeful it will soon be considered. 

Ultimately, the refugee crisis will only be solved when President Obama shows leadership on the fundamental issue: articulating and executing a comprehensive strategy to dismantle and destroy ISIL. The failure of the Administration to develop and implement a coherent strategy to confront and destroy ISIL has made the refugee crisis worse. 

The best solution for these persecuted victims of the violence in Iraq and Syria would be to rid that region of ISIL terrorism. That is why I have co-sponsored an Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) that, unlike the AUMF requested by the President, confers upon the the Commander in Chief maximum flexibility to take the actions required to roll back the territorial gains of ISIL. This does not necessarily mean another extended ground war for the American military in the Middle East. But it does mean an expanded role for American special operators and our air campaign, which is presently averaging only 15 sorties a day in Iraq and Syria, as opposed to the 1,000 sorties a day during Operation Desert Storm and 800 sorties a day during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It also means satisfying Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi's request for more Train and Equip Funds for the Iraqi Army and additional direct assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. 

Reports from the refugee camps confirm that the vast majority of those fleeing Syria do not want to be resettled; instead they want to return to their homes in peace without threats to their safety or well-being. An open-ended resettlement program would take all of the indigenous anti-ISIL fighters out of that region, strengthening the terrorists' hold on their so-called caliphate. It would represent a stunning admission of defeat for the international coalition that moderate, displaced Syrians will never be able to return safely to their home country. 

So as we wait for the President to finally present a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIL, we must take every step possible to keep Americans safe. This includes a pause on the President's expanded refugee program.  

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