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If refugees can't be properly vetted, close the borders

The Obama administration cannot properly vet the thousands of Syrians seeking entry. The FBI director himself said as much while testifying before Congress last month.

Syria's bloody civil war has brought the largest number of refugees and asylum-seekers to the United States in a decade, and thousands more are expected in 2016.

Although the United States has an admirable history of compassion and generosity in dealing with refugees, the Obama administration cannot properly vet the thousands of Syrians seeking entry to identify and remove those with ties to terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. The FBI director himself said as much while testifying before Congress last month.

National security must be the priority in this crisis.

Historically the United States has been the world leader in recognizing the moral obligation to resettle refugees. Following the admission of more than 250,000 displaced Europeans in the wake of World War II, Congress enacted the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, providing for the admission of an additional 400,000 European refugees.

Subsequent legislation provided for admission of persons fleeing Communist regimes from Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, China, and Cuba. After the fall of Vietnam in April 1975, the United States resettled hundreds of thousands of Indochinese refugees through a temporarily funded task force.

Realizing that it needed to create procedures that would deal with ongoing resettlement, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which standardized resettlement services and established the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, jointly run today by the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.

Since 1975, the United States has resettled more than 3 million refugees, with annual admissions figures ranging from a high of 207,000 in 1980 to a low of 27,110 in 2002, according to the State Department.

Because these extraordinary efforts have made our country a beacon for refugees, organizations like the International Rescue Committee have been urging the United States to accept 65,000 Syrian migrants. The IRC also insists that many of the refugees are survivors of torture, widows, and children who have no ties to ISIS and hence, do not represent a threat to U.S. national security.

But the resettlement of Syrian refugees is a uniquely different challenge. None of the earlier resettlements occurred when the United States was at war. Nor did the refugees pose a serious threat to our national security.

The current Syrian resettlement, on the other hand, is taking place during of time of heightened terror alerts involving ISIS recruitment of American youth and an increasing number of terrorist cases involving homegrown jihadis since 9/11. What's more, the sheer numbers of migrants involved make it easier for terrorists to evade detection in the screening process.

According to the U.S. State Department, of the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled attacks by their government and ISIS since the beginning of civil war in March 2011, 1,500 have been resettled in the United States this year with the goal of bringing upwards of 2,000 in by the end of 2015 and an additional 5,000 to 8,000 refugees next year.

Although the number pale in comparison to those of Germany, which has made a commitment to take in 800,000 refugees, it's important to keep the U.S. statistics in context.

In the decade prior to the Syrian civil war, the annual number of Syrians granted U.S. asylum averaged 17, with a high of 36 in 2013, the latest year for which Homeland Security statistics are available. Thus, the United States will have to vet thousands more Syrian refugees than in the past, in addition to others coming from the Middle East, some of whom may have ties to ISIS. To be sure, Syrian refugees are subjected to an enhanced vetting process that takes two years or more for adults and their families to arrive in the United States once they apply. But the chaos that has accompanied the migration out of Syria makes it impossible to trust the screening.

Nor has the vetting process proved infallible. In 2009, for example, al-Qaeda manipulated the refugee program to sneak two Iraqi operatives — Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi — into the United States. They were later arrested in an FBI sting operation in Bowling Green, Ky.

Similarly, a 2013 ABC News investigation revealed that several dozen other suspected terrorists, including some who were believed to have targeted U.S. troops, may have mistakenly been allowed to move to the United States as Iraq and Afghanistan war refugees, among the tens of thousands of innocent immigrants.

What's important to remember is that refugee protection is a shared, global responsibility not limited to the United States, which is already doing more than its fair share financially.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Washington has provided more than $4 billion for relief to those fleeing the conflict, according to the United Nations. That makes the United States the single largest donor of any country in the world.

Until Congress and the president can agree on a more creative, deliberative, and comprehensive process to vet and admit refugees — as well as other immigrants — U.S. borders should be closed.

The increasing numbers of terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001 reinforce the fact that the U.S. is engaged in a global "war on terror." Ultimately, wartime demands that the government act on its primary obligation to protect the American people by heightening national security. Anything else — including the resettlement of Syrian refugees — must be of secondary importance.

William C. Kashatus is a historian, educator, and author.