By The Numbers: Syrian Immigration and Security in Virginia

In Blacksburg News, Happenings by

As Super Tuesday hits Virginia, voters will influence the future of Syrian refugee resettlement in the state.
By Aidan Hughes, Happenings staff writer Contact the Reporter

Postal worker Kathy Siron from Staunton, VA attends a rally for Donald Trump in Radford University's Dedmond Center on Feb. 29, 2016. Photo by Scott Beaubien.

Postal worker Kathy Siron from Staunton, VA attends a rally for Donald Trump in Radford University's Dedmond Center on Feb. 29, 2016. Photo by Scott Beaubien.

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On Nov. 18, 2015, Roanoke Mayor David A. Bowers released a statement requesting that the city “suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance” — a ban on all Syrian refugees. In addition to referencing terrorist attacks in Europe, the page-long memorandum favorably compared his own proposal to the policy of Japanese internment post-Pearl Harbor, stating “that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

The issue of Syrian and Muslim immigration has become a hot topic for the 2016 presidential primaries, and is sure to have an impact as voters from Virginia and twelve other states head to the polls on Super Tuesday. However, what is the real extent of the security threat posed by Syrians to Virginia and the United States, and what influence do Bowers and others actually have on the matter?

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has made a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants one of the tenets of his campaign. Such a measure is necessary to ensure national security, said one supporter at Trump’s Feb. 29 Radford rally, postal worker Kathy Siron from Staunton, VA. Siron cited the need for temporary restrictions until “we can figure out what the hell Obama is doing, and the vetting process, and go from there.”

Siron holds up another of the six different signs she made for the Donald Trump rally in Radford University's Dedmond Center on Feb. 29, 2016. Photo by Scott Beaubien.

Siron holds up another of the six different signs she made for the Donald Trump rally in Radford University’s Dedmond Center on Feb. 29, 2016. Photo by Scott Beaubien.

The vetting process she mentioned refers to claims made by proponents of the ban that the government has no way of being able to confirm the true identities of Syrian refugees. The Pylon spoke to a national security expert and discussed the ability of the U.S. to ensure that no terrorists were posing as refugees. According to the source, who asked to remain anonymous because they would have needed approval to speak on the matter, the normal application process for refugees is similar to a government worker applying for a security clearance.

Applicants are subject to a thorough background check — they must provide forms of identification, list places of employment, provide details on family members, and go through a rigorous interview and verification process from the Department of Homeland Security (PolicyMic provides a good overview of the process from start to finish). This system is much more rigorous and restrictive than the application process for many European Union countries, which are also facing public backlash for welcoming an influx of refugees.

Major complications from the Syrian civil war have made it increasingly difficult for the DHS to actually verify some of the information provided by refugee applicants. Normally U.S. agents work with the government of the refugee’s origin in order to confirm the applicant’s identity, prior employment, residency, and other information. However, a contentious relationship between America and the Assad regime, coupled with the lack of a State Department presence in the country, means that the U.S. cannot cross-check application details with Syrian databases. The destruction caused by constant warfare has also caused many applicants’ information to become outdated. “There’s a very real probability that [the applicant’s] house doesn’t exist anymore”, explained the source. “His neighborhood doesn’t exist anymore… so you can’t get the information you need to verify this guy.” Even more alarmingly, the source said, was recent information that ISIS had captured a Syrian government passport facility. This may have given terrorists the means to produce “real, legitimate passports” to fabricate identities and fool U.S. security checks.

And yet the relocation of thousands of refugees fleeing Iraq — another area in which ISIS is active — to the U.S. makes the number of Syrians arriving seem inconsequential. From 2012 to current day, a mere 30 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Virginia, with a national acceptance of 2,803 individuals from 763 cases according to the Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center. Only two individuals had settled in Mayor Bowers’ city of Roanoke as of late November. These numbers pale when compared to the 2,217 Iraqis relocated to VA and a staggering 66,695 individuals placed throughout the U.S. during the same time period.

An important factor to note is that DHS agents can verify Iraqi refugee identities with greater ease due to warmer relations between our two governments. However, one has to wonder whether the tens of thousands of Iraqis accepted into the U.S. each year still received the same level of scrutiny that the comparatively minuscule number of Syrian refugees did. Secondly, the U.S. has had significant growth in acceptances for Syrian asylum seekers — those who apply for legal residence once they have already entered the U.S. Accepted asylum applications more than doubled from 2012 to 2013 (The Pylon contacted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to request more recent figures, but was told their information is “out of date” and that they can only provide data up to 2013). Finally, these numbers do not reflect the Obama administration’s pledge to accept up to 10,000 refugees during FY 2016, which would put much heavier strain on attempts to verify the identities of the refugees.

So, throughout all the debate about security concerns and the admittance of further refugees, what can local leaders such as Mayor Bowers or state governors do to stem the flow? The answer seems to be “not much.” Legal and political science experts have described talk from governors and mayors about imposing a ban as just that — no more than talk. “This is a national matter,” according to Charles Taylor, professor and former chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech. “It is completely the role of the federal government” to determine immigration policy, he said, and political statements claiming the ability to block refugees on a smaller level are nothing more than talk.

This only lends more weight to the decision of Virginia voters on Super Tuesday, as they decide which candidates will vie for the presidency. Whoever succeeds will also assume eventual control over immigration policy following a year that will see a massive increase in the state’s population of Syrian refugees. Virginians will, in essence, be choosing on Tuesday whether we should keep our borders open in response to the largest humanitarian crisis of the modern era, or shut America’s doors in the name of national security and public safety.

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About the Author

Aidan Hughes


Aidan Hughes is a member of the VT Corps of Cadets double majoring in international studies and creative writing. He enjoys conflict and identity studies, and hopes to one day work as a political journalist or obtain a professorship at Virginia Tech. Aidan believes that political fact-checking, a well-informed electorate, and countering sensationalism are crucial to maintaining a healthy democracy.