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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

False GOP Theme: ‘Unvetted’ Refugees

A common Republican falsehood — a claim that Syrian refugees being admitted to the U.S. are “unvetted” — is beginning to infect campaign TV ads.

In fact, all refugees seeking to enter the U.S. must pass a more rigorous screening than anyone else allowed into the country, and those from Syria are subjected to special measures including iris scans and an “enhanced review” by the Department of Homeland Security.

We have already seen the misleading term “unvetted” applied to Syrian refugees by some Republican House members, conservative websites and conservative newspapers.

And now it’s being used in scary-looking GOP TV ads, too.


In Ft. Myers, Florida, a Republican primary candidate for the House, Francis Rooney, started running an ad July 30 showing hooded Islamic State fighters, as the narrator says, “[President] Obama still wants to let unvetted Syrians in.” Later, Rooney himself appears and says, “Allowing unvetted Syrians into our country is a risk we simply can’t take.”


And in Minnesota, GOP House hopeful Stewart Mills started airing an ad Aug. 1 accusing incumbent Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan of supporting “bringing 100,000 unvetted Syrians to America before the end of the year.”

How Syrians Are Vetted

These candidates have a right to argue that the vetting for Syrian refugees isn’t adequate; that’s a matter of opinion. And indeed, FBI Director James Comey testified last year that screening Syrians is particularly challenging, and that he can’t guarantee there is no risk involved.

But that’s a far cry from saying that Syrians aren’t screened at all, which is what the term “unvetted” means in plain English.

To “vet” something or someone, according to standard dictionary definitions, means in this context “to evaluate for possible approval or acceptance” or “to examine a person’s record to see that it is acceptable.” And nobody can honestly deny that all refugees — Syrians in particular — are examined and evaluated, and rather extensively.

The U.S. State Department says that all refugees “are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to our country.” The process includes reviews by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security.

In the case of refugees from Syria, an “enhanced” review is made, which can include referral to the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

All refugees are fingerprinted and their prints compared to those on file in the biometric databases of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense, which includes fingerprint records captured in Iraq and elsewhere. In the case of refugees from Syria, iris scans are also used.

The Mills ad attacking Nolan is particularly dishonest in accusing Nolan of favoring entry of “unvetted” refugees. Nolan favors continued acceptance of Syrians, but also is on record emphasizing that anyone coming into the country must be vetted.

The Brainerd Dispatch in Minnesota reported months ago:

Brainerd Dispatch, Nov. 18, 2015: Nolan [said] the U.S. must “leave no stone unturned” to protect itself from ISIS. The nation’s intelligence gathering must be examined, and anyone entering the country from abroad must be screened, he said, “regardless of the time or the inconvenience involved.”

Worldwide there are nearly 5 million Syrian refugees who have been displaced by the country’s civil war, which began in 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Obama administration plans to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. As of Aug. 4, the U.S. had accepted 9,835 Syrian refugees since Obama took office, with the vast majority being accepted in the past two years.

As for the claim that Nolan supported bringing 100,000 Syrians to the U.S. by the end of 2016, that’s true. Last September, Nolan was one of 72 House Democrats who signed a letter urging Obama to accept a Refugee Council USA recommendation to “settle a minimum of 200,000 refugees by the end of 2016, including 100,000 Syrian refugees.”

However, after the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks, Nolan voted for the Republican-sponsored SAFE Act legislation that would have barred admission of any refugee from Syria or Iraq unless the homeland security secretary, with the concurrence of the director of national intelligence and the FBI, “certifies … that the [refugee] is not a threat to the security of the United States.”

The bill passed the House 289-137, but later died in the Senate when supporters could not muster the 60 votes required to bring it to the floor.

Information Gaps

To be sure, there are valid concerns about the Syrian refugee vetting process. FBI Director Comey testified Oct. 22, 2015, before the House Judiciary Committee that “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

Comey went into more detail in his Oct. 21 testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee. He said screening procedures had improved from earlier years, but that U.S. databases have less information on Syrian terrorists than on those from Iraq, where the U.S. military operated for years.

FBI Director Comey, Oct. 21, 2015: We can only query against that which we have collected. And so if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interests reflected in our database, we can query our databases until the cows come home but … nothing [will] show up because we have no record on that person.

Video of Comey’s response begins at 54 minutes into the hearing.

However, as mentioned earlier, others besides the FBI are involved in the vetting — including intelligence agencies. Furthermore, techniques other than a simple database check are used. For example, Syrian applicants for refugee status are interviewed by specially trained officials of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

So Syrian refugees are all vetted in multiple ways.