VOL. 130 | NO. 245 | Thursday, December 17, 2015
View From the Hill
Corker Says Visa Waivers a Bigger Risk Than Refugees
By Sam Stockard
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says he believes the nation needs to stop admitting Syrian refugees until security problems are solved, but the nation’s “bigger risk” in letting terrorists slip into the country lies with the nation’s Visa Waiver Program.
“In the European Union, part of the strength of the European Union … from their perspective was people’s freedom of movement,” Corker says shortly before speaking at Middle Tennessee State University’s December graduation.
“So you have somebody in Belgium who’s just been in Syria and has been radicalized, comes back and, boom, they’ve got a visa waiver to come right into the U.S. You understand, that’s a problem.”
The U.S. House recently passed bipartisan legislation designed to restrict travel by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan to America without screening. It also limits travel by Americans who’ve been to those countries in the last five years.
Adopted in 1986, the Visa Waiver Program allows nationals from 38 countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without getting a visa. Numerous House Democrats, including Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, later said they regretted the bill’s passage because it could hurt the ability of U.S. aid workers to travel and sought changes.
The Senate also is likely to make it part of an omnibus spending package, but with some tweaks, according to Corker, who acknowledges it must be handled properly to avoid hampering Americans who want to travel abroad.
Corker, a Chattanooga Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says refugees go through a far greater amount of vetting than those traveling on the visa waivers with only minimal screening.
Yet he favors holding up refugee admission, at least temporarily, because of a “weak database” in determining whether someone in Syria has “terrorism tendencies.”
“It’s those areas where the (Obama) administration has got to really dig into. We’ve gotta make sure, we’ve gotta know that we’re not creating additional security risks,” he says. “They know that, and I know that they are pursuing that end. And I think, though, until they can demonstrate that they’re able to do that, then pausing for a period of time makes some sense.
“I’m in favor of them being able to demonstrate to us that there are no security risks before allowing additional people to come in. It’s my hope they will do that soon.”
Immediately after ISIS-backed terrorists bombed Paris in November, numerous state Republican leaders such as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell called for the federal government to put a moratorium on some 10,000 refugees expected to come into the country and Tennessee.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam asked the federal government to suspend placement of refugees in Tennessee until states could become more of a partner in the vetting process. Attorney General Herb Slatery issued a legal opinion stating federal law prohibits the state from stopping the entry of Syrian refugees but that Tennessee can relate its concerns to the federal government about resettlement.
Corker, who is aware of Haslam’s communication with the White House and Secretary of State John Kerry, says Tennessee could quit accepting federal dollars for refugee resettlement.
“But a refugee going to another state could easily travel to Tennessee,” he adds. “So the most effective way is where you start it, and that is make sure the federal government is doing all of those things that are necessary to ensure that we don’t have people coming into our country that are going to be a risk.”
Catholic Charities set up the Tennessee Office for Refugees after the state stopped administering the program in 2008 under former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.
Tennessee had 1,601 refugees resettle statewide in fiscal 2015, 1,142 in the Nashville area. Only 30 of those came from Syria, compared to 393 from Burma and 332 from Iraq, according to Catholic Charities.
Vetting of refugees takes between 18 and 24 months, sometimes longer, led by the Department of Homeland Security and involving the Department of Defense and the State Department, says Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator for Catholic Charities. The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, Counterterrorism Council and international agencies are involved, with most of the work being done before people arrive on U.S. soil.
On the hot seat
Johnson took heat from legislators during a recent joint hearing by House and Senate State and Local Government Committees on the refugee resettlement program, some of whom claimed she wasn’t sending them a quarterly report as required by law. (She contends it was an oversight.)
In a room packed with refugees who say they feel they’re being targeted unfairly, Johnson explained to legislators it sometimes takes 10 years for refugees to be resettled.
“The images you see on TV are not the Syrians coming to the United States,” she told lawmakers.
Catholic Charities doesn’t select, vet or track refugees, including moves out of state. In fact, she is mainly an administrator, with nonprofit agencies in Tennessee’s four largest cities working face-to-face with refugees.
Though she faced criticism from Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, for the problem with quarterly reports as well as an apparent lack of communication and dispute over figures with Rep. John Ragan, a Republican from Oak Ridge, Johnson received some support from Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who asked her what she thinks makes the program work well.
“The program works well because of who the refugees are,” Johnson explained, calling them “resilient” people willing to leave their home country and sometimes wait for years before being dropped into an unknown land.
Despite her comments, state Sen. Jim Tracy, a Bedford County Republican who passed legislation in 2011 giving local governments the option to reject refugees, pointed out the world is “at a crossroads.”
“We are in a different time today in 2015. We do have a charge to keep constituents and citizens safe here in our state,” Tracy said, arguing it is too difficult to vet refugees who may not be telling the truth about their beliefs from the outset.
Some lawmakers pointed out terrorists could use the new strategy of embedding in refugees, much the same as al-Qaida shocked the world when it flew jet airliners into the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon on 9/11.
David Shedd, a former CIA operative and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, tells lawmakers there is “no end in sight” to the Syrian conflict, with ISIS remaining “defiant and resilient” to Western and allied bombing attacks.
An estimated 320,000 people have been killed in Syrian, and 50 percent of its pre-war population of 23 million is displaced, he says, pointing out America’s dilemma is showing “compassion” for suffering refugees while “ensuring our own security is not compromised.”
Shedd notes the weakest part of the refugee vetting process is the beginning when, because of a weak database and no access to information inside Syria, candidates can mislead authorities, lying about everything from their names to their place of birth or home.
“I don’t think you can ever get risk to zero,” Shedd says.
Assimilating refugees once they reach the United States can keep them from becoming radical, he adds.
But that offered little comfort to many legislators.
Sen. Kerry Roberts presses Shedd for a “yes or no” answer on safety surrounding the refugee vetting process, saying, “People are calling our office and asking us: Can you give us assurance that this program is operating the way it’s supposed to.”
Roberts, a Springfield Republican, points out President Barack Obama assured the nation it is safe, yet numerous intelligence experts say the vetting process is weak. He wants to be able to tell people whether they can sleep soundly at night knowing they won’t be a target of terrorism.
Shedd responds he can’t give any guarantees, but he notes if the nation moves to destroy ISIL and al-Qaida at the epicenter of their activity, people would be safer.
And, similarly to Corker, Shedd points out the Visa Waiver Program needs greater scrutiny than refugee admission.
In fact, only eight refugees have been involved out of 88 terrorism plots or acts nationwide since 2011, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
Shedd acknowledges refugee participation in terrorism has been low, though some of it was stopped by intelligence.
Refugees, of course, are upset with what they consider bullying.
After the hearing, Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, says the question isn’t whether the screening process is rigorous but whether legislators will keep exploiting the fears of Tennesseans.
“As we gear up for the 2016 legislative session, members of the General Assembly will have to decide whether or not they’ll try to score political points by aligning themselves with Donald Trump, Lt. Gov. Ramsey and the handful of legislators who have been pushing anti-refugee legislation for years.
“Or, if they’ll align themselves with the majority of Tennesseans who believe the resettlement program is a reflection of our nation’s highest values and stand ready to welcome refugees.”
State Rep. Darren Jernigan sums up the view of most Democrats in the General Assembly saying, “When somebody comes to me and they say, ‘can I sleep safe this evening,’ I would probably say yes, you have a one in 20 million chance of being killed by terrorism and I’ve got 11,000 gun deaths a year.
“I would probably say you need to trust the government a little bit. There’s a lot of dangers out there that you can go out there and something happens to you. But I would probably argue that there are other programs out there that are much less safe, like the visa waiver program that I would probably want to go after first, than the refugee program, because 18 to 24 months of vetting is a lot more secure than the other programs.”
“Be vigilant. Be aware and look at your surroundings. If you see changes, report them. … Live in strength and hope.”
But considering Democrats hold little to no power in the Legislature and refugees are outnumbered statewide, expect a spate of bills in 2016 designed to retake control of the refugee program, reject federal funding refugee resettlement, set up new vetting procedures for refugees or – maybe – to call for the disbanding of American refugee resettlements.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.