/ Modified nov 24, 2015 4:49 p.m.

153 Syrian Refugees in State Underwent 'Rigorous Process'

Arizona governor among group asking federal government to stop refugee resettlement.

Doug Ducey Doug Ducey, Governor of Arizona. Photo from 2014. (PHOTO: AZPM)

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Following the Paris terror attacks almost two weeks ago, Gov. Doug Ducey joined 30 other governors who are pursuing a series of measures they believe will prevent a similar attack in the United States.

The governors asked the federal government to stop resettling refugees in their states, citing security concerns over the vetting process for refugee applicants after one of the gunmen involved with the Paris attacks was found with a fake Syrian passport. His fingerprints traced him to entering the European Union through Greece under the guise of an asylum-seeker.

Arizona has 153 Syrian refugees who have resettled in the state, out of 2,261 refugees who have resettled in the nation since October 2011, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

"These acts serve as a reminder that the world remains at war with radical Islamic terrorists. Our national leaders must react with the urgency and leadership that every American expects to protect our citizens," Ducey said in a statement on his website.

However, the governor may not have the legal jurisdiction to prevent refugees from resettling in the state, said Gloria Goldman, a partner at Goldman and Goldman, a law firm that specializes in immigration law.

"I don’t even know if he can legally do that, because the refugee and asylum decisions are federal law," Goldman said. "You know, the governors who have done this really don’t understand the vetting process and what they’re doing is totally against the whole spirit of what the United States is."

The process for a refugee application typically takes at least two years with a complex web of screening and verification, according to Chong Bee Vang, the director of Refugee Focus in Tucson.

It begins with a referral from the United Nations, a human-rights non-governmental organization or a U.S. Embassy on the behalf of the endangered person or family. After initial interviews and medical screenings, less than 1 percent of cases are determined eligible for resettlement and move on in the process.

"And then their fingerprints get taken, they go through an intensive interview process to get the story of how they feel they’re being persecuted. In that process it is determined if they are admissible to the United States and the story they’re making the refugee claim on is considered and vetted to see if it meets the criteria of a refugee," Vang said.

Applicants also undergo extensive background and security checks by the National Counterterrorism Center, the intelligence community, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Syrian cases in particular undergo extra scrutiny.

"I think that the U.S. has a very rigorous process for people to get to come and they’re cross referenced through stories, and finger prints and name checks, and medical history and family lines and everything, that it’s very unlikely that anyone would be able to make it though," Vang said.

Barring refugees from the state is not the best course of action, said Leila Hudson, who is the Director of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts in Tucson.

"It’s entirely understandable that public officials want to do their best to secure the safety of their territory and their population, but directing fear, xenophobia, racism, against this small and highly vetted population is doubly ironic because of course these people are fleeing the violence of ISIS and the vast majority of them are the victims of terror themselves," she said.

The U.S. has resettled approximately 780,000 refugees of all nationalities since Sept. 11, 2001, according to an estimate from the Migration Policy Institute. Out of that number, three have been accused of terrorist-related activities, none of which involved threats against the U.S.

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, approximately 2,000 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S., and out of that number.

Shutting down the refugee resettlement program for an overhaul is not only unnecessary, but also counter-intuitive, Hudson said.

"ISIS wants to stop refugees seeking refuge abroad. So to the extent that there are states in the Middle East, Europe and now the United States who are slamming the door shut on refugees, that is very much part of ISIS’ long-term strategy," she said. "They would like the population of Syria to seek refuge with them, to be fodder for their campaign, their recruitment, and their ideology."

The complexities of the vetting process act as a reliable safe guard Goldman said.

"I would never say it’s impossible, but it’s highly unlikely. Just as easily they could come through a tunnel underneath the U.S.-Mexico border just as easily, if that’s what we’re looking at," she said.

Ducey addressed the prospect of ISIS militants using the border as a point of access into the U.S. to carry out an attack on Monday, calling for tighter border security measures during a special field session of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"In light of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris ... new threats on the United States from ISIS in a video released last week ... and recent apprehensions of Middle Eastern Nationals near the southern border ... one thing’s for sure: it’s time to step up our game," he said.

Additional security measures are also being considered at the federal level.

Congress moved to temporarily halt the refugee admission process last Thursday when the House of Representatives passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act by a two-to-three margin. The SAFE act seeks to expand background checks on refugee applicants coming from Syria and Iraq. The bill will move onto a vote in the Senate, which has not yet been scheduled. If the bill passes, President Obama said he will veto it.

Tucson Representatives Republican Martha McSally voted in favor of the act and Democrat Raúl Grijalva voted against it.

Julianne Stanford is a University of Arizona journalism student and an intern for Arizona Public Media.

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