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Former Immigration Director Defends U.S. Record On Refugee Vetting


About 68,000 of those denied entry after the executive order was signed had already been approved to come to the U.S. as refugees. Until last week, America had been the most generous nation on Earth in admitting refugees. And as NPR's John Burnett reports, it's also been among the most rigorous in vetting them.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Leon Rodriguez was at home in Rockville, Md., last Friday, making a lunch of rice and beans when he heard the news on CNN. The president wants extreme vetting to prevent terrorists from coming to the U.S. Rodriguez was until January 20 director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This is the lead agency responsible for scrutinizing refugees.

LEON RODRIGUEZ: We were engaged in pretty much extreme vetting ourselves in the sense that our process involved a multitude of interviews by trained officers, involved check of multiple law enforcement and intelligence databases and involved the process of many steps that took place over a very long time.

BURNETT: Rodriguez says since 9/11, no refugee has committed murder on U.S. soil in a terrorist act. Two have tried. Last November at Ohio State University, an 18-year-old Somali drove a car into a group of students, jumped out and began stabbing people. Eleven were injured.

And last September, a Somali man used two steak knives to attack shoppers in a Minnesota mall, injuring 10. In both cases, the assailants were shot and killed during the attacks, and ISIS took credit. Both Somalis had arrived in the U.S. as refugee children. One was 16. The other was 2. Rodriguez says the radicalization did not happen overseas.

RODRIGUEZ: Because a lot of what we've seen go on over the years really points to individuals who were marginalized, felt displaced while they were here in the United States.

BURNETT: General John Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, says he's worried that militants will use immigration as a way to get into the U.S., and that's why they need to review and enhance screening.


JOHN KELLY: It might be certainly an accounting of what websites they visit. It might be telephone contact information so that we can see who they're talking to. But those are the kind of things we're looking - the social media.

BURNETT: Leon Rodriguez points out that his office had been checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts of prospective refugees from Syria and Iraq since 2015.

MOHAMMAD AL-ADAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

BURNETT: One of the Syrian refugees vetted under the Obama administration was Mohammad al-Adawi. He was a farmer of wheat and chickpeas in Daraa, Syria, when he and his family fled the army's scorched earth campaign. He says it took two and a half years waiting in a refugee camp before they could board a plane in Amman, Jordan, and get off in Austin, Texas, last August. Al-Adawi says he underwent five screening interviews totaling more than 12 hours. He says he's not active on social media, so there was nothing to check there.

AL-ADAWI: (Through interpreter) It's not, like, difficult - the interviews itself. It's just long. So we had to wait for a long time to be accepted.

BURNETT: Mohammad al-Adawi, a worried and dour man, sits in the offices of refugee services of Texas. He says he had not heard the news of Trump's travel ban. He says he's been tending to his five children and sitting by his wife's bedside at the hospital. She recently had a stomach tumor removed.

AL-ADAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

BURNETT: "The Syrians who are leaving are not terrorists," he says wearily. "If we were terrorists, we would stay. We left because our lives are in danger." Under the executive order, all refugee resettlements have been paused for 120 days. Syrian refugees were singled out to be halted indefinitely. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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