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By Sarah Hauer February 26, 2016

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman criticizes Barack Obama over vetting of Syrian refugees

With questions about border security and refugees from Syria still dominating the debate in the Republican presidential contest, we decided to look back in our files and tackle a claim made in late 2015 by U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin

On Nov. 20, 2015, soon after the House passed a bill that would increase security checks on refugees from Iraq and Syria, Grothman appeared on conservative talker Jay Weber’s show on WISN (1130-AM). In the appearance, he asserted President Barack Obama has basically an open-door policy when it comes to immigrants.

"Whether it’s dealing with the Middle East or south of the border, Barack Obama is apparently not for vetting people and saying just anybody can come here and we’ll see what happens," said Grothman, R-Campbellsport.  

Since Grothman made his statement in the context of the Syrian refugee bill, we’ll evaluate the claim with that in mind. Obama plans to accept about 10,000 people from Syria in 2016.

Refugee process

Obama has said Syrian refugees coming into United States must follow the same vetting process as all other refugees. But Republicans argue that is not enough and more stringent background checks are necessary, given concerns about terrorists posing as refugees and slipping into the country.

Let’s take a closer look at the vetting process for those seeking refuge in the United States.

Those seeking refuge must find a United Nations Refugee Agency and identify themselves as a refugee. The U.N. collects data on the applicant, such as their date and place of birth. Applicants are interviewed to confirm need for resettlement.

Refugees from active war zones, including Syria, already must undergo additional checks, such as iris scans that are checked against terrorist databases.

The White House says less than 1 percent of the global refugee population is considered strong candidates to be admitted to the United States and make it past this first check.

Then, applicants are received by a federally funded Resettlement Support Center overseas.

An applicant file is created with identifying documents and security checks conducted. Candidates are screened by at least four U.S. security agencies -- National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. The agencies check for security risks, such as ties to known bad actors, and criminal history.

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The process continues with a Homeland Security interview; those from Syria get an "enhanced review," which means their documents are scrutinized more closely. Fingerprints are taken and screened against federal databases. A medical screening occurs. Cultural orientation classes are taken. Travel is booked. Finally, the refugees arrives in the United States.  

U.S. officials will eliminate any candidate who intelligence does not think will make a good candidate to enter the United States.

"Any doubt, they’re out," said Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy for the refugee assistance group HIAS.

Grothman’s backup

Grothman’s team sent a series of links to news articles and quotes from federal officials as evidence of Obama’s stance on refugees.

"The idea that somehow they pose a more significant threat than all the tourists who pour into the United States every single day just doesn’t jive with reality," Obama said in his remarks after a meeting with the Canadian prime minister Nov. 19, 2015.

Grothman also included a quote from FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony in October 2015.

"If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data," Comey said. "I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this."

But Comey didn’t say the system is failing, or that no vetting occurs. Only that it is impossible to identify every potential problem.

"James Comey doesn’t have the power of absolute foresight," said Antonio Ginatta, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "No level of vetting would get you to 100 percent."

Our rating

Grothman said, "Barack Obama is apparently not for vetting people and saying just anybody can come" to the United States.

But refugees are the most vetted people who enter the country -- and Syrian refugees already  face additional measures. What’s more, Grothman’s evidence didn’t back up his claim.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

News/Talk, Jay Weber Show, Nov. 20, 2015.

Wall Street Journal, Obama says Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must go, Nov. 19, 2015.

Washington Examiner, White House downplays Dem defections on Syrian refugees bill, Nov. 20, 2015

Fox News, Syrian refugees: In desperation, Obama offers statistics and lies, Nov. 20, 2015

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Hearing on "Refugee admissions, fiscal year 2016" before the Senate committee, Oct. 1, 2015

The White House, Infographic: The screening process for refugee entry into the United States, Nov. 20, 2015

The White House, How we’re welcoming Syrian refugees while ensuring our safety, Nov. 17, 2015

The White House, Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada after bilateral meeting, Nov. 19, 2015

Human Rights First, National security experts letter on refugees, Dec. 1, 2015

Human Rights First, U.S. resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Nov. 23, 2015.

Phone interview Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy, HIAS, Dec. 2, 2015

Phone interview Andrew Schoenholtz, director, Human Rights Institute, Georgetown Law, Dec. 7, 2015

Phone interview Antonio Ginatta, advocacy director, Human Rights Watch, Dec. 4, 2015

Email exchange with Brittni Palke, press secretary, U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman

PolitiFact, PolitiFact sheet: 5 questions about Syrian refugees, Nov. 19, 2015

State Department, "Background Briefing on Refugee Screening and Admissions," Nov. 17, 2015

Wall Street Journal, Syrian refugees eyeing America see long waits and extensive vetting, Nov. 9, 2015

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More by Sarah Hauer

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman criticizes Barack Obama over vetting of Syrian refugees

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