In Refugee Vetting, How Good Is Good Enough?


(The National Interest)

Refugees and migrants try to warm themselves up, Indjija, Serbia, October 5, 2016

Refugees and migrants try to warm themselves up, Indjija, Serbia, October 5, 2016

Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

by Ian Mitch

November 1, 2018

Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration would reduce a cap on the number of refugees the United States could admit into the country to 30,000, representing the lowest ceiling since the program's creation in 1980. The move reportedly reflects the administration's priority to screen hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers already in the country as well as concerns that vetting procedures may not be up to snuff.

In announcing the decision, Pompeo characterized legacy screening procedures as “defective,” citing their inability to identify several refugees with criminal backgrounds and one with ties to ISIS. While not elaborating on that case, Pompeo was likely referencing an Iraqi refugee arrested in August who allegedly was a member of Al Qaeda and ISIS and reportedly killed an Iraqi police officer before resettling to Sacramento in 2014.

While the circumstances of that case are alarming, policymakers would be wise to recognize that no screening system by itself is likely to weed out all threats. No matter how rigorous and lengthy new vetting procedures may be, on occasion, refugees with criminal backgrounds and even terrorist sympathies are likely to slip through the cracks.

This is true for two primary reasons. First, security agencies are unlikely to identify every potential red flag in a refugee's background, particularly if the applicant never publicly expresses—or acts on—his or her terrorist sympathies. Security agencies, for example, were not aware of private Facebook messages that San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik sent under an alias to a small group of friends pledging her support for Islamic jihad before entering the United States on a fiancé visa.

Second, as studies have shown, most foreign-born immigrants who subsequently attempt terrorist attacks in the United States are often admitted as children and later radicalized while living in the country. No screening program can reliably predict if an applicant will develop terrorist sympathies in the future.…

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Ian Mitch is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on October 31, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.