New York Times
By Ron Nixon
February 19, 2016
The arrest of a California man on charges that he traveled to Syria to fight with terrorist groups, then lied about it to the Department of Homeland Security, offers new ammunition for both sides in the fierce debate over the refugee policy of the Obama administration.
Conservatives and some federal law enforcement officials say the case of the Californian, Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, 23, shows that the refugee program leaves the nation vulnerable to terrorism. But Homeland Security officials and Democrats in Congress contend that his arrest demonstrates that the system works.
The ambiguities of Mr. Jayab’s arrest last month are at the core of a dispute over whether the United States should tightly restrict immigration from countries associated with terrorism, or should join some European nations in accepting rigorously screened applicants in order to help stem the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., have prompted a broader examination of America’s immigration policy because some officials fear that terrorists could exploit the ways people enter the country.
Before his arrest, Mr. Jayab seemed like a typical young adult: He liked sports cars, studied computer programming at a community college in Sacramento and worked nights as a security guard.
But the federal authorities have charged that Mr. Jayab, who was born in Iraq and came to the United States as a refugee from Syria, traveled to that war-torn country from late 2013 to early 2014 to fight on the side of terrorist groups and then lied about it to the authorities. He faces up to eight years in prison if convicted.
“Jihadists see these programs as a back door into America and will continue to exploit them until we take action,” said Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, during a hearing this month on refugee and visa programs.
But supporters of the administration’s program, like Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the arrest of Mr. Jayab and other refugees shows that the system succeeded in blunting a threat. He added that the long screening process for Syrian refugees makes it unlikely that terrorists would try to come to the United States as refugees.
“Terrorists would be crazy to wait 18 to 24 months while undergoing a rigorous screening process to get into the country,” Mr. Carper said in an interview.
Still, some members of Congress and security experts say the arrest of Mr. Jayab has forced them to question the screening process. Federal court documents show that at least 14 people who came to the United States as refugees have been arrested on terrorism charges in the last two years, including Mr. Jayab.
“I thought that it was very secure until I saw the arrest in California and Texas,” said John J. Farmer Jr., former senior counsel to the federal commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, who is now a professor at Rutgers. “Now, I have my concerns.”
The federal authorities charged that Mr. Jayab conspired with Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 24, an Iraqi-born refugee living in Houston, to get weapons training and eventually sneak into Syria to fight alongside terrorist groups.
Benjamin Galloway, a federal public defender in Sacramento and Mr. Jayab’s lawyer, said his client had done nothing wrong. “There is no threat that this man poses and no indication that he’s engaged in any activity since his return two years ago,” he said.
Many of the Paris attackers were European citizens and could have entered the United States under the visa waiver program. Tashfeen Malik, one of the attackers in San Bernardino, was granted entry to the United States on a K-1 visa, which can be given to the fiancé or fiancée of an American citizen. And a number of refugees from Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia have been arrested and charged with supporting terrorists.
Homeland Security officials say the refugee screening process has a much lower security risk.
Refugees recommended for resettlement in the United States first undergo screening abroad, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In addition to intensive interviews, the agency collects biometric data such as iris scans and photographs.
In the United States, refugees face another round of intense screenings and interviews by caseworkers at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington. Their names are run through law enforcement and intelligence databases at the National Counterterrorism Center, the F.B.I., the Defense Department, the State Department and United States Customs and Border Protection, among other agencies.
The Citizenship and Immigration Services agency declined to answer questions about refugees who have been arrested on charges of terrorism, citing privacy.
Mr. Jayab, who came to the United States from Syria as a refugee in October 2012 and who lived for a time in Tucson and Milwaukee, seemed more interested in fast cars than in violent extremism.
Court records show that on Nov. 9, 2013, he flew to Turkey from Chicago and then traveled to Syria. He told officials that he had gone to Turkey to visit his grandmother. But between November 2013 and January 2014, federal officials say, Mr. Jayab sent private, direct messages on social media saying that he was in Syria fighting with various terrorist organizations, including Ansar al-Islam, which has been on the United States’ list of foreign terrorist organizations since 2004.
Mr. Jayab returned to the United States on Jan. 23, 2014, and settled in Sacramento, where he attended American River College and had a job as a security guard, according to his lawyer.
In interviews with immigration officials and with the F.B.I., Mr. Jayab denied that he had gone to Syria.
Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said cases like Mr. Jayab’s caused him to worry about the refugee program. “What happens when nothing shows up in the databases?” he said in an interview.
Senior law enforcement officials and counterterrorism experts have expressed similar unease. James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, told a congressional committee in October that the federal government could not conduct effective security checks on Syrian citizens. “We can query our database until the cows come home, but nothing will show up because we have no record of them,” he said.
Homeland Security officials acknowledged that it was possible for people to get through the screening process, but they added that their biggest worry was the radicalization of immigrants after their arrival in the United States.
“I can tell you who a person is today,” said a senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the screening program publicly. “But I can’t tell you who they will become tomorrow.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com