June 24, 2015 STATEMENT- LIRS Statement for the Record on “Admitting Syrian Refugees: The Intelligence Void and the Emerging Homeland Security Threat”

House Homeland Security Committee

Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence

June 24, 2015

By Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) appreciates the opportunity to submit its views on the United States Refugee Admissions Program as it pertains to Syrian refugees. As the national organization founded by Lutherans to serve uprooted people, LIRS is committed to helping those who have been forced to flee their homes find protection. Following God’s call in scripture to uphold justice for the sojourner, LIRS serves as a leader in calling for the protection of vulnerable migrants and refugees, including children and families from Syria.

For over 75 years, LIRS has worked to welcome over 400,000 refugees to the United States on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In Fiscal Year 2014, LIRS and its Refugee Resettlement affiliates welcomed over 11,000 refugees to their new communities and empowered them to build new lives.

Resettlement in a third country is considered a durable solution and a last resort for only a small fraction of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. LIRS is proud to be one of nine agencies that partners with the federal government, particularly the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to be a part of this solution. LIRS is dismayed that despite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registering over 4 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are children, only a precious few Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States.

The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) located within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency continually achieves its dual mission to offer resettlement opportunities to eligible refugees while safeguarding the integrity of the program and the United States national security.  To protect U.S. national security, DHS provides advanced training to its refugee adjudicators on security protocols, fraud detention and fraud prevention.  In addition, each refugee considered for resettlement in the United States goes through a multi-layered screening process before coming to the United States. These processes include multiple biographic and biometric checks by U.S. security vetting agencies which are routinely updated, in-person interviews with trained adjudication’s officers and ‘pre- departure’ checks.  No case is finally approved until results from all security checks have been received and analyzed.

To add unnecessary security screening mechanisms to this already robust process would needlessly harm individuals who need protection by delaying their resettlement.  “Sadly, the Syrian refugee population includes severely vulnerable individuals: women and girls at risk, survivors of torture and violence, and persons with serious medical needs or disabilities,” said Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO. “LIRS and our national network stand ready to do what it takes to welcome into U.S. communities the most vulnerable Syrian refugees who cannot return home or integrate in the countries currently hosting them.”

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program offers refugees safe haven and a chance at a new life, while also bringing tangible benefits to the communities that welcome them. Having endured incredible hardship and unimaginable horrors in their home countries, refugees often spend years exiled in host countries once they flee, awaiting the opportunity to rebuild their lives. In the case of Syrian refugees, host countries in the region are increasingly strained and unable to offer benefits or stability.  Once they are resettled in a third country, refugees routinely become engaged and productive community members, contributing economically, socially, and spiritually to our communities. The support of welcoming communities, congregations, volunteers, employers, schools, foster families and others makes resettlement a successful public-private partnership. The federal government, particularly PRM and ORR, and state governments play a vital role.

The conflict in Syria only continues to worsen.  As mention, UNHCR has registered over 4 million refugees, half of whom are children, who have been forced to flee to neighboring countries. It is LIRS’s position that the United States should commit to resettling a higher number of vulnerable Syrian refugees. However, to achieve this goal, more focus and resources must be committed to the admission process as well as the resettlement and integration of newly arriving refugees.

Increased Funding Needs and Necessary Resettlement Reforms

Resources available to refugee families and adults through ORR have remained stagnant for many years. To ensure that Syrian refugees resettled in the United States would receive the help they need to locate housing, receive medical attention and employment assistance, among other services, and to promote self-sufficiency and long-term integration this funding must be increased.

While private support plays an important role in the reception and integration of refugees, federal resources are critical to ensure refugees receive essential services. Refugee populations arriving to the United States have changed significantly since the formal establishment of the resettlement program in the Refugee Act of 1980. Today’s refugee population is much more diverse and vulnerable than it was more than three decades ago. However, services lack flexibility to be responsive to the diverse strengths and needs of refugees arriving today.  Furthermore, ORR’s mandate has expanded over the years from serving resettled refugees to include asylees, Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa recipients, Cuban and Haitian entrants, survivors of human trafficking and torture and unaccompanied children. Because funding has not kept up with these changes in ORR’s mandate and diversifying client needs, ORR has strained to provide sufficient support and services to all of the populations under its care.

Reforms to Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds

Under immigration law, an individual cannot be admitted to the United States if they have provided material support, including insignificant material support, to an undesignated terrorist organization; a member of such an organization; or to an individual the individual knows, or reasonably should know, has committed or plans to commit a terrorist activity.  In 2001, Congress enacted legislation that significantly broadened the definition of “terrorist activity.”

As a result, refugees, including many vulnerable Syrian refugees, who pose no threat to national security face denial of protection and resettlement in the United States due to unintended consequences of the overly-broad application of the “material support to terrorist organizations” bar (and related bars) to admission. Indeed, current law threatens to exclude any Syrians who fought with any armed opposition group in Syria (regardless of whether or not the individual applicant was involved in any violations of international humanitarian law or other crimes), anyone who provided “material support” to any opposition force or opposition fighter, anyone who solicited funds or members for such a force, and even anyone whose spouse or parent is found to have done these things.

These bars are duplicative and carry severe consequences. As mentioned previously, refugees are required to pass intense security screenings and background checks as part of the admission process. People who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, or who persecute others are inadmissible to the United States under other provisions of our immigration laws. However, overly broad “terrorism” bars prevent the ability of the United States to provide welcome to bona fide refugees seeking safety.

LIRS Recommendations

LIRS’s expertise, experience, and compassion- drawn from decades of welcoming vulnerable newcomers- inspires our advocacy. To address current resettlement needs facing refugees, including millions of Syrian refugees, and improve welcome for refugees in the United States, LIRS makes the following recommendations to Congress:

  • Ensure robust fundingof the Department of State’s, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement to better protect and assist refugees overseas and those resettled to the United States.
  • Enact pending legislation to strengthen refugee protections and resettlement, includingthe bi-partisan Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act of 2015 (H.R. 1568).
  • Amend problematic anti-terrorismprovisions that define “material support” too broadly.
  • Increase the Presidential Determination from 70,000 refugees in FY 2015 to 100,000 refugees in FY 2016 to allow resettlement of Syrian refugees in addition to ongoing resettlement of other refugees from around the world.

If you have any questions about this statement, please contact Brittney Nystrom, LIRS Director for Advocacy at bnystrom@lirs.org or 202.626.7943.