(CNSNews.com) – The former head of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement said on Friday that concerns about the security risk of bringing Syrian refugees into the U.S. given the terrorist presence in that country are based on “fear-mongering” and that the millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally did not undergo security screening used to vet asylum seekers.
“I can tell you that we have about 11 million undocumented people in this country I was told,” Eskinder Negash said at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “I don’t believe they went through a security screening system.”
When CNSNews.com asked whether admitting thousands of Syrian refugees posed a security threat to the United States, Negash, who was appointed as the head of Health and Human Services’ ORR by President Barack Obama in 2009 and served until this year, said that refugees are “the most vetted people” accepted into the country and that security can be used for “fear-mongering.”
“Refugees are the most vetted people to come to this country, so I think we have to have a lot of confidence in our system,” said Negash, who is a refugee from Ethiopia and now serves as senior vice president for global engagement with the non-governmental organization the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
“I happen to have a lot of confidence in the security system and the people who do the screening, but I’m afraid that there are some people using security, trying to create this fear, and there are a lot of fear-mongering people who actually use this kind of issue,” he said.
Negash and others who are part of the coalition of faith-based groups and refugee advocates held the press conference to announce that the Refugee Council USA is asking the president and Congress to increase the current cap for U.S. refugees admitted each year from 70,000 to 200,000 for fiscal year 2016, with 100,000 of those refugees coming from Syria.
Eric Schwartz, who was appointed the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration by Obama and served until 2011, said at the press conference that he and other former federal officials from several administrations signed onto a letter asking the Obama administration and Congress for that increase in the refugee cap and also $2 billion from Congress to pay for the more than double the number of refugees that would be admitted and resettled in the U.S.
“We appreciate that the United States has been the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Syrians, but current efforts are not adequate,” the letter addressed to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, in part:
“Humanitarian aid is falling short in the face of unspeakable suffering and putting enormous pressure on governments in the region that are hosting refugees,” the letter said.
According to the White House, to date the U.S. has contributed $4 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria.
Schwartz and the 22 others who signed the letter, including Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait and Lebanon; former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; and Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria and Algeria.
Schwartz told CNSNews.com the security issue “is real” but that some risk is necessary to continue to be a nation that welcomes immigrants.
“I think the issue is real, but I also think you need to put it into context. Hundreds of thousands, if not more, people come into the United States through our immigration system every year,” Schwartz said. “That, in and of itself, is not without some risk to our country, but the alternative is not an alternative – which is to close our borders.”
Despite an inevitable “bad actor” among those immigrants, the security process for refugees is “thorough,” he said.
“I will say the screening procedures in our refugee program are more thorough than any immigration screening procedures we have,” Schwartz said, adding that the U.S. should not change “our overall approach to engagement with the world.”
According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, refugee security screening includes security clearance through the Department of Homeland Security, including an in-person interview, and a medical screening.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg View reported that senior national security officials met at the White House to discuss increasing the refugee cap from its current 70,000 to 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 and in fiscal year 2017 to 100,000 – just half the number requested by the Refugee Council USA and former federal officials.
The Refugee Council USA coalition includes the Episcopal Migration Ministries, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Jesuit Refugee Service, USA, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.