The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) held a public meeting on U.S. refugee policy May 12 in Arlington, Va. The Investigative Project on Terrorism attended the meeting (held in conjunction with the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services) after a veteran DHS official privately expressed concern that the United States has no idea whether it is admitting Somali jihadists as "refugees."
This United States admitted tens of thousands of Somalis into the United States since 2002, the official says. But it is impossible to verify their identity because Somalia has long been a state without a functioning government and it does not keep usable birth records. If only a miniscule percentage of these people turn out to have been involved with al-Shabaab or other extremist groups, the United States may have admitted dozens of potential terrorists, the official says.
The hearing was supposed to chart the government's course on refugee policy for the coming fiscal year but it did not do so. In fact, there was virtually no testimony at all about al-Shabaab.
Witnesses included Iraqi refugees and officials representing nongovernmental organizations groups ranging from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to Human Rights First, who discussed the nuts and bolts of resettling refugees in the United States. Many of the topics discussed – which included efforts to resettle Iraqis facing death threats because they had worked for the American military – sounded like commendable humanitarian efforts.
But the security challenges involved in admitting refugees to the United States were barely mentioned until the final 10 minutes of the public meeting, when the IPT asked what the government was doing to keep jihadists out.
Refugees are carefully vetted and go through many security reviews, said David Robinson, deputy secretary of State for PRM. Barbara Strack, chief of DHS's Refugee Affairs Division, Refugee Asylum & International Affairs Directorate, made essentially the same point, but said she couldn't provide any details without compromising intelligence secrets.
That was the extent of the discussion pertaining to refugee policy and terrorism.
But an important question – whether porous U.S. immigration procedures are letting Somali jihadists into the United States – remains shrouded in mystery. A veteran DHS official says the danger is real. But senior officials at DHS and the State Department insist that everything is fine and that the public will simply have to take their word for it. Considering what's at stake, some serious congressional oversight would seem to be in order.