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Posing as refugee isn’t easiest way into US, experts say

Immigration system has gaps terrorists can use

WASHINGTON — Almost all of the nation’s Republican governors have said that they oppose placing Syrian refugees in their states, citing concerns that terrorists could pose as migrants fleeing the Syrian civil war. But experts say there are much easier ways for terrorists to enter the United States. The governors’ focus on refugees, these experts suggest, reflects a misunderstanding of what the refugee program is and ignores more serious vulnerabilities in the immigration system.

The concerned governors point to Europe, where countries have been overwhelmed by migrants from Syria and other regions affected by war and political turmoil. More than 800,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece this year. Some might have escaped scrutiny from European authorities. For instance, one of the suicide bombers in Paris landed with other migrants on the Greek island of Leros on Oct. 3, carrying a fake Syrian passport.


Governor Rick Scott of Florida and others worry that a terrorist masquerading as a Syrian migrant could enter the United States in a similar way, without US intelligence officials knowing about his connections to violent Islamism.

Yet Syrian refugees arriving in the United States are in a separate legal category from the migrants arriving in Europe, and they are processed under a more secure system. The migrants in Europe are seeking asylum, rather than applying for status as refugees.

This is an important distinction. Syrian migrants to the United States largely come through the international system for settling refugees, the system from which US governors want their states to withdraw. In contrast to those seeking asylum in Europe, these refugees must submit to rigorous checks by federal investigators before they travel here.

Syrian refugees — and potentially terrorists posing as refugees — would have to wait over two years for an application to be approved, and probably longer. The United Nations, which directs refugees to the United States and elsewhere for resettlement, gives priority to orphans and families headed by women. After the United Nations places a refugee with the United States, security protocols begin, including interviews with agents from the Department of Homeland Security.


And although many refugees processed by the United Nations do come to the United States, there’s no guarantee they will. Terrorists posing as refugees wouldn’t necessarily know to which country they would ultimately be assigned.

Coming here disguised as a refugee ‘‘would be quite difficult and would actually be a quite inefficient way to enter a country to commit an attack,’’ said Susan Fratzke, a Migration Policy Institute analyst.

For the migrants arriving by foot and by boat to seek asylum in Europe, authorities begin screening them only after they arrive, creating a bureaucratic disaster. The cost of a trans-Atlantic plane ticket has spared the United States that problem. But the country had its own asylum crisis last summer, when children from Central America arrived in large numbers along the border with Mexico. Neither they nor the migrants now crossing into Europe have the status of refugees, the group that Republican governors (and one Democrat) have targeted.

Governors do not have the legal authority to exclude Syrian migrants from their states, but they could obstruct the federal government’s process for settling refugees here by withholding funds and manpower.

Some of these governors have argued that the US system for vetting refugees might fail to expose a potential terrorist, but in any case, a terrorist wouldn’t need to submit to that process. ‘‘There are much easier ways for someone to infiltrate a country with the purpose of committing a terrorist attack,’’ Fratzke said.


The United States admitted 70,000 refugees in 2013 and granted asylum to 15,000 people. That same year, the Department of Homeland Security processed 173 million admissions for tourists, students, investors, diplomats, and other temporary visitors. Many of them are hardly vetted before they enter.

There is particular concern among some lawmakers about three dozen countries with which the United States has an agreement to waive visas. Citizens of those countries don’t need visas to enter the United States, and 21 million did so in 2013.