Strict Syrian refugee screening ensures safety, Moulton says

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BOSTON – U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton and Gov. Charlie Baker have patched up a rift over dealing with Syrian refugees which erupted last week after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

“We had a very good phone call at the end of last week,” Moulton, a Democrat from Marblehead, told reporters Tuesday at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston, after he sat in on a roundtable discussion with refugees, advocates and Baker aides. “I think the fact the governor was willing to send representatives here today to listen is exactly what we need to do.”

Moulton last week took to Twitter to call out Baker after the governor told reporters Nov. 16 that he would “need to know a lot more” about federal refugee screening procedures before he would agree to accept additional Syrians for resettlement in the state.

While Baker stood firm in saying he needed more information, he declined on Friday to sign a letter circulated by fellow Republican governors that asked President Barack Obama to suspend Syrian refugee resettlements in the U.S. until screening procedures could be reviewed and tightened. A statement from Lizzy Guyton, his spokeswoman, said Baker believed the state has a role in accepting refugees while he was also working to preserve public safety in the process.

Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war who has been a vocal backer of welcoming Syrian refugees, spoke about the “vetting” that immigrants seeking refuge must go through, calling it “the strictest screening process of any traveler to the United States.”

The process typically takes 18 to 24 months for refugees to complete before they qualify to be resettled in the U.S. and Moulton said terrorists would be unlikely to choose the refugee process as a way to enter the country.

“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense that they would choose literally the most difficult way to get to the United States, the most scrutinized avenue, to send terrorists overseas,” Moulton said.

Yet the congressman’s views on the screening process differ from those of FBI Director James Comey, based on his testimony before the Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in October. In it, Comey spoke about gaps in the agency’s ability to check the background of individuals from places like Syria, whose regime is hostile to the U.S. and has been embroiled in civil war since 2012.

“If someone has not made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or intentions reflected in our databases, we can query our databases until the cows come home, but nothing will show up because we have no record of that person,” Comey told legislators at the hearing. “You can only query what you have collected.”  

Comey also referred to his particular caution with people coming out of conflict zones such as Syria: “My concern there is that there are certain gaps I don’t want to talk about publicly in the data available to us.”

Last week, Moulton voted against a bill that calls for suspending entry to the U.S. for Syrian and Iraqi refugees until national security agencies like the FBI can “ensure” there are no security threats. While Obama vowed a veto and reportedly dispatched White House aides to press Democrats to vote down the measure, dozens of them backed the bill. It passed by a veto-proof 289-137 majority. Two of the Bay State’s all-Democratic House delegation, Reps. Steve Lynch and Bill Keating, voted for it. In the Senate, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada vowed to block the legislation there.

“Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” Reid told reporters at a briefing last week, according to

Moulton said he would’ve supported the bill if he believed it was “more helpful than harmful” to national security.

“If it did more to actually strengthen the security process, rather than just be a bureaucratic move that only can be used as a propaganda tool for ISIS, then I might have voted differently,” Moulton added. “I do have confidence in the vetting and screening procedures that are being used today.”

With regard to information from a refugee’s native country, Moulton said that background material is “just one small part of the process.”

“A lot of the process involved interviews with experts who are trained to tell if someone is telling the truth or not,” Moulton said, adding that law enforcement agencies have “extensive” databases.

Moulton also referenced America’s “long and proud history of accepting refugees,” noting that such people have “always come from places where they didn’t have good records and frankly we wouldn’t trust them if they did.”

“That’s not central to the process,” he said.

Others who participated in the roundtable, which was closed to reporters, said they’ve witnessed more anti-immigrant diatribes from politicians than they did following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Nadia Alawa, a Syrian immigrant who lives in New Hampshire, said she personally feels a “different sentiment out there that is actually worse than 9/11” and pointed to the messages sent out by world leaders, at home and abroad, immediately following the Paris attacks, that indicated “we should fear those Syrian refugees.”

“After 9/11, we had a very clear leadership that said, ‘extremists are our enemy, Islam and Muslims are not our enemy,” Alawa added.

Asked what she thought of recommendations pushed by Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump’s call for a “beautiful safe zone” in Syria, Alawa said Syrians have been pleading “for four years” to establish one.

“We have been asking for no fly zones, for safe zones, so people can get a breather,” Alawa said. “No Syrian wants to leave their country. We’re almost five years into the conflict and we’re now having this discussion in the United States.”

“But you reach a point of no return.”

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.