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Poll: Americans fear Syrian refugees could pose terror threat

In this Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 photo, migrants from Syria and Iraq rest on a roadside while hoping to board a bus in Tovarnik, Croatia. Tens of thousands of people trying to escape conflict and poverty in places like Syria and Afghanistan have been making their way across Europe this summer and fall, embarking on grueling journeys that typically start with a short boat trip from Turkey to Greece, then continue north and west on foot and by bus and train. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A majority of Americans are concerned that the Obama administration's plan to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria could make the country less safe, according to a new "Full Measure"/Rasmussen Reports poll.

The poll released in conjunction with the premiere of "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson" Sunday indicates that 56% of respondents believe admitting thousands of Syrians will make U.S. a more dangerous place. Also, 28% oppose accepting any refugees and 28% say the U.S. is allowing too many in.

Experts say concerns that terrorists may sneak into the country among the thousands of refugees are understandable, but some argue that those fears do not reflect the reality of the refugee population or the extensive screening process before they are admitted.

"I think that risk is exaggerated," said Thomas Mockaitis, a professor of history at DePaul University.

"I see no reason to be so concerned about those arriving in the country, because that's not where the threat has come from in the last 10 years," said Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Hannum said the fears expressed by poll respondents are likely sincere, but they are based on exaggerated perceptions of terrorism and they ignore the screening measures that will be in place.

"I think it's a possible scenario," he said of the idea that Islamic State terrorists may infiltrate the refugee community, but "I don't think it's a plausible scenario."

Hannum argued that law enforcement agencies can prevent crime and terrorism by refugees once they enter the country as effectively as they combat criminals and terrorists who are already in the U.S.

"None of these people is going to be coming in with bombs and weapons," he said.

"There are legitimate concerns. These are people coming from a war zone," said Shelly Culbertson, a Middle East analyst with the RAND Corporation. However, Culbertson said the screening process exists to address those concerns.

"I'm not diminishing security risks, but it's something that can be managed," she said.

According to Culbertson, the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 has left 11 million people, half of the country's population, displaced either within Syria or in other countries. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq have taken in 4 million refugees. This is placing an enormous strain on public services in those countries.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Europe, creating a crisis there that has received worldwide media attention in recent months. The U.S. has only taken about 1,500 Syrians to date, but it has also donated $574 million to humanitarian efforts, the most of any nation, Culbertson added.

Following the Obama administration's announcement last month that 10,000 more Syrian refugees will be accepted in the 2016 fiscal year, several Republican lawmakers warned that members of ISIS could infiltrate the U.S. along with the legitimate asylum-seekers.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) told Sinclair at the time that the FBI lacks the ability to definitively rule out applicants who have terrorist ties. "I can't be complicit with a policy that would bring terrorists into the United States," he said.

"We just simply can't let anybody come into this country without trying to determine whether they have any radical tendencies," Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) told Sinclair, but he added that most Syrian refugees are probably even more opposed to Islamic extremism than the American public because they have lived with it and experienced it.

The fear persists, though. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, "ISIS and other terrorist groups have made it abundantly clear that they will use the refugee crisis to try to enter the United States."

According to the Associated Press, presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called the plan to accept Syrian refugees "nothing short of crazy."

"It would be the height of foolishness to bring in tens of thousands of people including jihadists that are coming here to murder innocent Americans," Cruz said at an event in Michigan on Monday.

Dr. Ben Carson, another Republican candidate, expressed similar concerns last week, telling a crowd in Iowa, "To bring into this country groups infiltrated with Jihadists makes no sense."

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has gone even further, claiming that it is "possible" an army of tens of thousands of men could come to the U.S. as refugees and attempt a military coup.

"Problem: we don't know who they are, I mean this could be [an] ISIS army," Trump told Sharyl Attkisson on "Full Measure" Sunday. "This could be brilliant people from ISIS saying, 'Let's infiltrate the United States.' We don't know. You know, what I see all over the migration, so many of them are men. You don't see that many women, and you see sections where they're all men and they look like very hale and hearty people. They look like they could be soldiers very easily."

Fact-checkers and experts have raised a number of doubts about this scenario.

While it is true that the majority of refugees seen in news reports making the dangerous journey to enter Europe by boat are male, they are not representative of the population that would be applying to enter the U.S. According to the United Nations, the majority of the total registered Syrian refugee population is either female or under 18.

An Amnesty International specialist told Politifact that women and children at risk, torture victims, and people with serious medical conditions are the top priorities for consideration by the refugee screening process. Politifact ruled that Trump's claim that the refugees are "mostly male" is false.

Others have questioned whether people who have barely escaped the violence of the Syrian civil war are likely to see violence as a solution to their problems.

Writing for The Conversation, University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor David Mednicoff said, "To assume that many Syrians are would-be jihadis after what they have experienced requires, to my mind, a leap of (paranoid) faith."

Also, the screening process that refugees go through before being allowed into the U.S. is rigorous and time-consuming. It can take up to three years to get approved. Experts say there are faster and easier ways for a terrorist to sneak into the country.

"It's just not that hard to get people in and out of the United States," Mockaitis said.

"The refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose," wrote Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, describing the process as "a painstaking, many-layered review" that involves screening of biometric data by multiple intelligence agencies.

That does not mean that the fear of Islamic radicals entering the U.S. through the refugee process is entirely unfounded, though.

"I don't obviously put it past the likes of ISIL to infiltrate operatives among these refugees, so that is a huge concern of ours," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at an event last month, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

Clapper noted that the U.S. has an aggressive system for screening potential refugees for security threats, but he expressed doubt that European countries taking in Syrians have equally effective procedures.

"This is a huge issue for all kinds of reasons," he said. "The security implications are just one small part of it. The economic, the social impacts are huge."

There is one documented case of Middle Eastern refugees attempting to support terrorism in recent years, according to Newland. It involved two refugees plotting to send money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq. They were caught before they could carry out the plan and are now in prison.

In testimony before a House subcommittee in June, Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pointed out that Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to the U.S. as children of Chechen refugees a decade before the Boston Marathon bombing. They later became radicalized in this country.

Gartenstein-Ross argued that the ability to screen for terrorists "fundamentally depends on the quality of U.S. intelligence about the Syrian refugee population." He noted that an FBI official testified earlier this year that databases may not have enough information to properly vet refugees for terrorism ties.

However, he also acknowledged that the risk of terrorists are hiding among the migrant population is much greater in Europe than in the U.S.

Other experts downplayed the risk posed by incoming refugees relative to dangers that already exist within the U.S.

"The fear of terrorism in general is exaggerated," Mockaitis said. He pointed to shootings and violence perpetrated by Americans as a more immediate threat.

"The bitter irony of this whole conversation is, what did we have happen in Oregon?" he said, referring to the killing of nine people at an Oregon community college last week by a 26-year-old American man.

While some anxiety about the allegiance of refugees is still reasonable, Mockaitis believes a bigger concern is what happens to them after they arrive in the United States.

"A large part of it will depend upon how they are received and handled here," he said.

According to Mockaitis, refugees are not inherently more prone to becoming radicalized than other individuals, but the way they are treated by their host country can make them vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. This is particularly true of unaccompanied minors and young male adults.

Hannum was less worried about refugees turning to crime or becoming radicalized once they are within the country. Plenty of American citizens are also unemployed, unsupported, and isolated, he said.

"There's no greater risk of them becoming criminals than the people who have been out of work since 2008."

Culbertson took a more optimistic view that, despite the opposition suggested by polling data, the public will prove to be accepting of refugees once they arrive.

"I think that fear [of radicalization] underestimates the generosity of the American people," she said, suggesting that the country has a long history of successfully integrating refugees from other parts of the world.

However, Mockaitis argued there is a heightened anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of terrorism at the moment--"driven by a certain amount of election year hype"--that could result in hostility and prejudice that increases the risk of terrorist recruitment.

According to Culbertson, the debate over hypothetical security risks posed by refugees overshadows the positive impact they could have on society.

"A big question is, how can the U.S. really benefit from welcoming such people in need and people who have great skills," she said.

The Syrian refugees come from a middle-income country with an educated population and a strong work ethic, she said. They bring their ideas, culture, and skills, and it is important to see them as self-reliant individuals rather than just as victims.

"I think they're the same benefits that the U.S. gets from immigrants around the world."

Mednicoff makes a similar point about the positive aspects of refugee immigration in his Conversation post. The refugees can raise awareness of the Syrian conflict by offering "direct and gripping eyewitness of the massive atrocities that we know have been perpetrated by both the Assad regime and ISIS."

They might "provide a reality check" for alienated Muslim Americans who are at risk of being recruited by ISIS, and they could reduce Islamophobia by countering negative stereotypes about Muslims. According to Mednicoff, refugees could also contribute to projects that foster religious tolerance and defusing conflict in the Middle East because of their experience in Syrian society.

However valid fears about the threat posed by refugees may be, the experts warn that it should not be the driving force behind government policies. According to Culbertson, the significant humanitarian needs of the refugees need to be weighed against those security concerns.

Hannum compared rejecting refugees over the terrorism threat to the internment of Japanese immigrants during World War II, saying the response would be "entirely disproportionate" to the actual danger.

"Obviously, we should try to screen them as best we can," he added. He noted that the lack of problems caused by Middle Eastern refugees allowed into the country so far suggests that the screening process is adequate.

Newland wrote that it would be unfortunate to allow the serious humanitarian crisis in Syria "to become embroiled in a debate that is heavy on rhetoric and light on facts."

Focusing on the issue of accepting refugees into the U.S. also overlooks the larger problem of the civil war in Syria that is creating them, according to Mockaitis. If the conflict does not end, people will continue to flee the region, either to get away from President Bashar Assad's forces or ISIS, or both.

Allowing this "very, very destructive...fear of the other" to dictate policy decisions is also dangerous, Mockaitis said.

"Making decisions based on fear is like shopping for food when you're ravenously hungry."

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