Lawmakers Urge Social Media Monitoring of Refugees

Lawmakers Urge Social Media Monitoring of Refugees
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The admittance of refugees into the United States and the background checks used in that process were the main topics of a House committee hearing Wednesday.

Lawmakers particularly questioned how the Department of Homeland Security monitors social media accounts to determine if a refugee is a potential threat.

The United States receives about 10.5 million visa applications a year, 1 million of which are refused.

Since 2001, the U.S. has revoked more than 122,000 visas based on information that surfaced after they were issued. About 10,000 of those were revoked because of suspected terrorist connections, said Michele Thoren Bond, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

“Every decent decision we make is a national security decision,” she said at a hearing held by the Committee on Homeland Security.

Since the mass killing in San Bernardino, Calif., at the hands of Tashfeen Malik -- who was allowed into the country despite jihadist messages on her social media accounts -- and her husband, the DHS has begun examining further the role of social media in screening visa applicants.

The department reviews social media accounts of higher-risk refugees, though the long-term goal is to search the accounts of everyone seeking refugee status, according to Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he would advise that this action be expanded so that every person applying for a U.S. visa would go through a social media screening.

Rodriguez emphasized that, though an important tool, a social media search is only one of the components the DHS evaluates when reviewing visa applicants. The department also relies on intelligence databases and in-person interviews, among other tactics.

“We can never 100 percent eliminate risk in anything we do in this life,” Rodriguez said. “… The fact is that we do have a very intensive process to mitigate risk in this particular case.”

President Obama said the U.S. will take in about 10,000 Syrian refugees over the course of the coming fiscal year, something several lawmakers on the committee disagree with.

Rep. Mike Rodgers (R-Ala.) asked why the U.S. needs to accept Syrian refugees. He noted that while he supports the care of refugees, he does not see the urgency of bringing them into this country. Now that the refugees have left their war-torn nation, they are no longer in danger and instead are looking for economic opportunity, he said.

Rodriguez said that it is crucial that the U.S. take action because there are now 4 million refugees scattered around Europe and the Middle East -- 400,000 of whom are children. This is more than a “humanitarian and optional undertaking,” but rather “a critical element of regional stability,” he said.

“To fail to admit refugees, who are in fact the most immediate and most severe victims of that sort of terrorism and those sorts of threats, would seethe a vital part of the battlefield and the very people who are seeking to destroy us,” Rodriguez said.

He also emphasized the importance of supporting American allies in Europe who have already accepted many times more refugees than the U.S. is considering. The 10,000 Obama intends to admit is just one-quarter of 1 percent of all the Syrian refugees, he said.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked how the DHS would handle refugees who have a clean slate, meaning there is no information on them from intelligence agencies -- though this does not necessarily indicate innocence, he said.

Rodriguez said there are other methods to vet applicants, but some congressmen were not convinced.

“I don’t think we should allow one single refugee into the United States if we cannot confirm factually that we have checked the database, and we can confirm that that person does not possess an intent or a threat to the American people,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) said.

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