October 18, 2015
San Jose Mercury News
As he listens to the debate over the Syrian refugee crisis, Shams Faryabi understands the plight of families desperate to flee the bloodshed of their war-torn country.
Ten years ago, he and his wife and two children arrived in the United States in search of a "peaceful happy life" several years after the Taliban brutally took over their native Afghanistan.
But Faryabi also understands that an immigrant wave could include people who mean to do America harm. "It's very hard to determine who is the bad and who is the good," he said.
That tension could play out on Capitol Hill as early as Thursday. House Republicans are expected to vote on blocking the Obama administration's plan to bring in 10,000 more Syrian refugees.
The fear that danger lurks amid the huddled masses yearning to be free is a concern some harbored even before terrorists, possibly including one who posed as a Syrian refugee, murdered 129 people in Paris last Friday. But many Democrats are arguing that blocking the refugees from coming here would a betrayal of American values.
"Our commitment to refugees and the security of the American people are not mutually exclusive," said San Jose's Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, and two other key House Democrats in a joint statement Wednesday. "We believe that turning our backs on those escaping persecution, many of them religious minorities and victims of terrorism, runs counter to the proud and generous heritage of the United States — a country of immigrants — that has always helped those in need in the most trying times."
About 4.2 million Syrians have fled their country since civil war erupted in early 2011. Most are now in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, but more than 680,000 have sought asylum in Europe. Only 2,219 have been admitted to the United States as refugees, a State Department database shows.
Now, 26 Republican governors have said they would bar Syrian refugees from settling in their states; they lack authority to do so but could make it harder for refugees by withholding state funds. Four more governors — including one Democrat, New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan — are calling for increased screening and security.
At issue is the 18-to-24-month screening process refugees must pass before coming to America — a process experts say is longer and more stringent than that facing millions of tourists and other non-immigrant visa holders who enter the country every year, assuming they even have visas at all.
"If ISIS wants to do harm to the U.S., putting someone into the refugee program is not the way to do it," said Niels Frenzen, professor and Immigration Clinic director at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law.
Most of the Paris attackers were French or Belgian nationals and not on the radar of those countries or the United States as possible threats. That means they might have been able to come to America without a visa on only a few days' notice, with only automated background checks, through a "visa waiver program" that the United States has with about three dozen nations, Frenzen said.
But refugees of all nationalities undergo many months of intensive security screening involving federal intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies before being admitted to the United States, a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
"Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening," the official said. "And we continue to examine options for further enhancement for screening refugees, the details of which are classified. But the classified details are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees."
Another official said Syrian refugees get extra scrutiny from the Homeland Security Department's Fraud Detection and National Security unit, which checks each applicant against classified and unclassified records. Still, fear persists.
"It seems a bit ludicrous to think that terrorists who go to such extensive and meticulous planning to do harm to us would not take advantage of the refugee flow," said Ric Oberlink, spokesman for Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization. With Syria in ruins, "we don't have intelligence on the ground" to verify refugees' stories, he said.
"Obviously there are humanitarian concerns," but it's best to keep most refugees as close as possible to the homelands they've fled, in hope they can return someday, Oberlink said.
Of the 2,219 Syrian refugees accepted by the United States since early 2011, 252 came to California, the State Department's database shows. Most went to San Diego or the Sacramento area, but 20 settled in the Bay Area — 16 in Oakland, two in Los Gatos and one each in San Jose and Walnut Creek. That doesn't include people who come here on other visas and then request asylum, or those granted "special immigrant visas" after helping U.S. military personnel, said Nancy Ferguson, who runs the International Rescue Committee's Northern California operation in Oakland.
But, she said, they all have one thing in common: "They're here because they were in fear for their families' safety and their lives. Some of them have seen family members killed; some of them have seen their hometowns devastated."
America saw a backlash against refugees after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, even though none of the 19 terrorists had posed as refugees, said Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family and Community Services in Walnut Creek. Weiss, whose agency helped Faryabi's family settle here, said aiding refugees is a valuable exercise in interfaith cooperation. For example, her Jewish agency has worked with a Catholic monastery to find shelter for Muslim refugees.
That's the America that Faryabi says made his family's long, difficult trek worthwhile, and it's why he now helps raise donations to aid other refugee families.
"Just helping the people — it doesn't matter which religion they are, which country, which language they speak … everyone should do this, everywhere," Faryabi said, because refugees simply want to get away from the violence that threatened them "and just be happy, take advantage of the life which is God's gift."