Are refugees a source of terrorism or crime? A fact check of ongoing fears and rumors

Since 1980, when the latest resettlement program started, more than 20,000 refugees from nearly 50 countries have started new lives in Idaho. They’re among 3.2 million refugees to find new homes nationwide.

The American public has often been skeptical of refugee admissions over the decades. That played a part in last year’s presidential election, and a little over a week ago President Donald Trump signed an executive order freezing refugee admissions for four months — and for Syrian refugees indefinitely — while his administration reviews and possibly revises the already-stringent vetting those immigrants receive.

That order is now in limbo after a series of federal court rulings, including one by a judge in Seattle on Friday that put a hold on the order nationwide.

Critics of refugee resettlement programs claim it’s a route for terrorists to infiltrate our country. Supporters point to the existing vetting process, and some argue that refugees have never been involved in domestic terrorism.

There’s misinformation on both sides. Here are some of the facts and research.

[Related: Treasure Valley refugees, advocates brace for Trump’s refugee ban, “extreme vetting”]

Idaho has had two post-9/11 terrorism-related cases

No one was wounded or killed. One resulted in a conviction, the other ended in acquittal.

Only one involved a refugee: Fazliddin Kurbanov, an Uzbekistan national who was admitted to the U.S. in August 2009 and resettled in Boise, was arrested by federal agents at his Boise apartment on May 16, 2013, on terrorism charges after being indicted by Idaho and Utah grand juries.

The Idaho jury indicted him on charges of conspiracy, possession of an unregistered destructive device and providing support to terrorists. The Utah jury indicted him on charges of providing instruction on the construction and use of an improvised explosive device.

Prosecutors said Kurbanov, a Russian-speaking truck driver, worked to support an Uzbek terrorist organization and gathered explosive materials in his Boise apartment.

Following a 20-day trial and two days of deliberations, a federal jury in Boise found Kurbanov guilty on three charges: conspiracy, possession of an unregistered destructive device and providing support to terrorists. U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge sentenced him to 25 years in federal prison.

Kurbanov appealed, then agreed to drop his appeal if the pending Utah charges were dropped.

The other case: Sami Al-Hussayen, a Saudi Arabian citizen who was pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science at the University of Idaho, was arrested by federal agents at his Moscow home on Feb. 26, 2003. He was accused of supporting terrorist groups through his work maintaining overseas websites.

After seven days of deliberations, a federal jury in Boise found the University of Idaho graduate student not guilty of the three terrorism-related charges against him and two of the 11 visa and immigration fraud charges, which negated another charge. Jurors deadlocked on the remaining charges, prompting Lodge to declare a mistrial on those.

Later in 2004, Al-Hussayen was deported to Saudi Arabia, where he lives today.

Refugees have been involved in other notable crimes

A couple of examples that drew public attention:

▪  Azad Abdullah, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq who came with his family to Boise in 1992, is on Idaho’s death row for murdering his wife, Angie, and setting the family house in Boise on fire with gasoline in 2002.

▪  Refugees were both the victim and the accused in a 2008 killing in Twin Falls, where a transgender Iranian shot and killed an Iranian man, her housemate. The motive was jealousy over another woman the victim was romancing, the Times-News reported. Majid Kolestani admitted to the killing in 2009.

▪  Last June, three boys ages 7 to 14, from Sudan and Iraq, were involved in some sort of sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl in Twin Falls.

Few details have been released, as juvenile cases are generally sealed in Idaho. But websites such as Breitbart began circulating incorrect information about the case: The boys were Syrian, the attack was a gang rape, the boys held the girl at knifepoint. Those reports led to national furor and pushback against local officials in Twin Falls.

The disposition of the case remains unclear.

But they’re more often victims than perpetrators

Boise is home to Idaho’s largest refugee population.

In response to the unique needs of this population, the Boise Police Department in 2006 created a refugee liaison position so an officer could work directly with refugees, refugee resettlement agencies and stakeholders.

[Related: Patience helps a Boise Police Department liaison officer build trust with refugees]

Among the agency’s lessons? “Generally speaking, our refugee liaison officer Dustin Robinson has found that refugees are more likely to be victimized or taken advantage of regarding unknown business dealings or civil situations,” said Haley Williams, BPD spokeswoman. “For example, they may be criminally victimized because they are less likely to contact law enforcement due to past trauma, or they may have been overcharged for something or sold a bad product.”

And research shows immigrants actually commit fewer crimes

Among Gov. Butch Otter’s concerns about refugees and other immigrants: “Do they understand the rule of law?” he asked during an interview Friday on “Idaho Reports,” where he also voiced support for prioritizing Christian refugee applications over those from other religions.

“Immigration crime research over the past 20 years has widely corroborated the conclusions of a number of early 20th century presidential commissions that found no backing for the immigration-crime connection,” wrote two university researchers in a fact check recently posted on PBS NewsHour’s website.

Robert Adelman of the University at Buffalo and Lesley Reid of the University of Alabama pointed to a variety of reports, from as old as 1931 to as recent as 2012, in addition to their own research to disprove the idea that immigrants are somehow more prone to committing crimes than existing American citizens. While they looked at the immigration system as a whole, this also provides context for the refugee debate specifically.

The Boise Police Department does not keep track of the number of crimes committed by refugees or immigrants, Williams said.

“It’s not a data point we collect and separate out for statistical use,” Williams said.

U.S. terrorism cases

Another oft-cited terror-related incident involving refugees came in 2011, when two Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green, Ky., were charged with attempting to send weapons and money to al-Qaida in Iraq. Mohanad Shareef Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan came to the U.S. in 2009. Both men admitted to killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq; they did not wound or injure anyone in the U.S. Both men pleaded guilty. In 2013, Hammadi was sentenced to life in prison; Alwan was sentenced to 40 years.

Fact checks and memes spread online have suggested that these men and Kurbanov are the only refugees arrested on terrorism-related charges — or, in some cases, implied that no terrorism cases have been brought against refugees at all. But there are others.

Last October, for example, Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan pleaded guilty to trying to provide support to the Islamic State. He entered the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee in 2009; news coverage suggests his involvement with the group (which didn’t exist under that name at the time) didn’t start until at least three or four years later. News reports say he spoke of attacking a Texas shopping mall.

In March, Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, a Palestinian born in Iraq who came here as an Iraqi refugee in 2012, was charged with providing material support to terrorism overseas. Specifically, the Justice Department alleged that he traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Syria, helped an Islamic State-affiliated group fight the Syrian government and then lied to U.S. officials about it later.

And in early 2015, six Bosnians — three who had become naturalized U.S. citizens and three who had refugee or legal resident status — were accused of trying to provide material support to the Islamic State overseas, routing money and supplies to another Bosnian who served as a foreign fighter for various terrorist groups in Syria. Their cases have not yet concluded.

A common thread in many cases: It’s not always that criminals are slipping through screening during the refugee inspection process; rather they’re radicalized while living here, presenting a different set of challenges.

Very few actual terror attacks

U.S. District Judge James L. Robart on Friday temporarily blocked President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban on people from seven predominately Muslim countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen

During the hearing, Judge Robart asked Department of Justice attorney Michelle Bennett, who was representing the Trump administration, “Have there been terrorist attacks in the United States by refugees or other immigrants from the seven countries listed since 9/11”?

Bennett replied she did not know.

“The answer to that is none, as best I can tell,” said the judge.

Of the 3,252,493 refugees admitted to the U.S. from 1975 through the end of 2015, 20 tried to commit attacks within this country’s borders, but only three were successful, killing a total of three people, according to “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis”, a report issued by the Cato Institute in September.

“In other words, one terrorist entered as a refugee for every 162,625 refugees who were not terrorists,” states the report.

All three attacks that caused deaths were carried out by Cubans in the 1970s, before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the rigorous screening procedures currently in place, according to the report.

The report also examines four deadly terrorism attacks since Sept. 11, 2001. None involved refugees, but some suspects were immigrants.

San Bernardino: One of the two shooters who killed 14 people on Dec. 2, 2015, was Tashfeen Milak, who was born in Pakistan and came to the U.S. on a K-1 fiancé visa. The other shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, was born in Chicago.

Chattanooga: Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, who was born in Kuwait, came to the U.S. with his family in 1996 and became a lawful permanent resident in 2003. He shot and killed five people on July 16, 2015.

Boston Marathon bombing: Brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were ethnic Chechens who came to the U.S. with their family under political asylum, which is not the same as the refugee process.

Los Angeles: Hesham Mohamed Hedayet, an Egyptian national in the U.S. on a tourist visa, shot and killed two people at the Al El ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport before a security guard shot and killed him on July 4, 2002.

Four of the eight deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. have happened in the past 10 years, including San Bernardino. Out of those, the Virginia Tech shooting also involved an immigrant: Seung-Hui Cho came to the U.S. with his family from South Korea in 1992.

Are these the bulk of terror cases?

Not even close.

Just in the past three months, federal court records show significant action in 14 Justice Department prosecutions — charges, convictions or sentencings — related to terrorism or support of terror groups. In addition, there’s Noor Salman, the U.S.-born wife of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen. She was charged last month with aiding and abetting her husband.

Most of the cases involve contact with the Islamic State, but one involved a New York man sentenced for trying to get a “dirty bomb” to use to kill Muslims.

Ten of the defendants, including Salman, are U.S. natives. One is a Cuban-born émigré; three are legal permanent U.S. residents originally from Kazakhstan, India and Yemen; and the last is a dual Dutch-Turkish citizen extradited to the U.S. The Indian man, according to media reports, is accused of securing asylum in the U.S. under a false name.

None of the defendants appear to be refugees.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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