An Obama administration plan to resettle a greater number of foreign refugees in the United States by expediting the screening process is drawing concern from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are warning that the administration is not capable of properly screening these individuals for ties to terrorism.
The Obama administration has committed to bring at least 10,000 Syrian refugees onto American soil in fiscal year 2016 by accelerating security screening procedures from 18-24 months to around three months, according to sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.
Obama administration officials told the Free Beacon that they remain committed to the plan, despite warnings from the FBI and other law enforcement officials who say the federal government is not equipped to properly vet these individuals within that timeframe.
The administration is committed to moving forward this year with a plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees and 85,000 refugees overall, officials said.
Lawmakers are pressing the State Department and White House to reconsider the plan, arguing that critical security concerns should be addressed before it is implemented.
"We know the 18- to 24-month vetting process for Syrian refugees has severe vulnerabilities after FBI Director James Comey warned about the federal government’s inability to thoroughly screen Syrian refugee applicants for terrorism risk and after the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative arm warned about ISIS’s capability to print fake Syrian passports for terrorist infiltration," Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) told the Free Beacon.
The administration has not specified what mechanisms it has put in place to facilitate the screening of a larger number of refugees on a three-month timeline, according to Kirk.
"Given that the administration has not explained to the American people whether and how it fixed these and other known vulnerabilities to terrorist infiltration, it is highly irresponsible for the administration to reduce the 18- to 24-month vetting process for Syrian refugees down to three months to meet its artificial and ideologically-driven goal of bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees onto U.S. soil by September," said Kirk, who recently introduced legislation to impose enhanced screening measures to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of the U.S. refugee program.
A State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon that the United States is expected to take in around 15,000 more refugees than it has in the past three years.
"The United States remains committed to the president’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees and 85,000 refugees overall to the United States in fiscal year 2016," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on record. "This projected increase in arrivals from around the world, from 70,000 in each of the last three fiscal years, will not curtail any aspects of the process, including its robust security screening."
The official confirmed that the administration is moving to screen these individuals on a swifter timeline in order to facilitate their entry into the United States.
"While this increase in processing capacity and other efforts will decrease the overall processing time for individual families, the average processing time worldwide remains 18-24 months," the official explained. "As we have said, neither this program nor any of our efforts to expand processing capacity curtail any aspects of the security, medical, or other screening."
The administration has moved in recent months to boost its processing capacity in order to deal with increased numbers of refugees, the official said. This includes new measures that would help Syrians with relatives already in the United States apply for resettlement.
Additionally, the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security are jointly working to increase their capacity to interview refugee applicants from Jordan.
"From February through April, additional staff were posted to Jordan, where they conducted interviews of over 12,000 [U.N.]-referred refugee applicants," the official said. "All applicants are still subject to the same stringent security and medical requirements that apply to all applicants for U.S. refugee resettlement."
Not all of the applicants who were approved will enter the United States in the coming months. Some of those approved will enter after April in fiscal year 2017.
The administration’s reassurances have not soothed concerns among senior congressional insiders working on the issue.
"The administration's repeated assertions that the vetting process is ‘robust' doesn't provide any real assurances about a dangerously flawed vetting process that has allowed terrorists to infiltrate refugee flows from high-risk countries in the Middle East into the United States," one senior congressional source told the Free Beacon.
"The vetting process clearly wasn't ‘robust' when it resettled two terrorists as refugees in Kentucky who were later arrested in 2011 after law enforcement officials learned, belatedly and through no small amount of luck, of the ties and material support of these individuals to ISIS's precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq," the source said, noting that U.S. authorities do not have databases capable of identifying potential terrorists.
"While U.S. and coalition forces worked with Iraqi authorities to create databases for identifying terrorists during the Iraq conflict who might be infiltrating refugee flows, FBI Director Comey has made it clear in congressional testimony there is no equivalent capability today for identifying terrorists from the Syrian conflict who might seek to do the same," the source said.
The Obama administration's refugee plan has emerged as a flash point in the 2016 election cycle.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.), who is running to unseat Kirk, has embraced the refugee plan, drawing criticism from the sitting senator’s camp.
"Duckworth’s plan to bring in 200,000 unsafely vetted Syrian refugees wasn’t considered safe when the administration had two years to vet each refugee for terrorist ties—it’s downright dangerous now that the vetting has been cut to just three months," Kirk’s campaign said in a recent statement.