A senior Department of Homeland Security official was unable to tell Congress the number of Syrian refugees who have entered the United States in the last year and the number of Americans who have travelled to Syria and returned, in testimony on Capitol Hill that angered many lawmakers.
Kelli Ann Burriesci, a deputy assistant secretary in the department’s office of policy, could not provide statistics about immigration when the House’s national security subcommittee grilled her about potential flaws in the visa waiver program.
While lawmakers had requested that its secretary, Jeh Johnson, testify before the committee, the agency sent Burriesci instead, saying that she is the resident expert on these issues.
However, Burriesci struggled to answer questions, prompting anger from lawmakers and concerns that the department is failing to track potentially dangerous immigrants.
"How many Syrian refugees have entered the U.S. in the last year" Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) asked Burriesci.
"Sorry, I didn’t bring any of the refugee numbers with me," she responded.
Jordon then asked: "Do you know how many Americans have traveled to Syria in the last year?"
"I don’t have that number on me either," the official responded.
"So you wouldn’t know how many Americans have traveled there and returned?" Jordan pressed.
"I don’t have that number on me," Burriesci stated.
When asked by Jordan, "How many visa waiver program overstays are there currently in the U.S.," Burriesci again responded that she does not "have information" on that subject.
The lack of answers led to frustration.
"We’re talking about the refugee issue and the Visa Waiver Program issue and you can’t give us numbers on either program?" Jordan asked.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) noted that the last time Congress was provided with accurate information about the number of people still living in the United States with expired visas was in 1994.
"If we’re looking at visa overstays, and sitting here debating a visa waiver program, and yet, the very instance of visa overstays and the potential terrorist threat that accompanies that, you’re tracking that, yet the last information Congress got was 1994," Meadows said. "Do you not see a problem with that?"
"I think you should receive the data as soon as it is available," Burriesci responded.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman, expressed frustration mid-way through the hearing and asked Burriesci if there is someone she can call to get help.
"You can’t give us the number of people on expired visas? You have staff? Can they just call DHS so we get it before the hearing is over?" DeSantis asked. "This should not be that difficult."
Burriesci did not respond to that question and continued to struggle.
"What percentage of the people leaving the [United States] are you able to capture?" Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) asked.
"I … I may have that with me but I have to look," Burriesci said while shuffling through papers. "I’m sorry. I do not have that statistic."
"You’re supposed to be the expert on this," Chaffetz responded. "This should be right off the top of your head. You’re coming before Congress. … These are basic questions about the functionality here."
DeSantis ultimately noted that Burriesci’s testimony was troubling.
"This is not inspiring a lot of confidence and I think a lot of questions have been raised instead of answered," he said.
In statement released after the hearing ended, DeSantis expressed his frustration at the department’s inability to provide Congress with answers about potential flaws in the visa waiver program.
"Islamic jihadists are on the march and 13 people were massacred in San Bernardino, yet DHS seems clueless about what is going on with potential threats to our security," the lawmaker said. "Congress needs to plug holes in immigration programs ranging from the visa waiver program to the refugee program. The testimony by DHS today gave Americans serious cause for concern about whether our government has a handle on the threats we face."