Screening for travelers, refugees is contentious topic at House hearing

There was bipartisan frustration and anger Thursday morning as members of Congress questioned federal security and immigration officials over the screening process for travelers and refugees – an issue that’s getting intense focus after 14 people were killed in San Bernardino, Calif., this month and the U.S. is poised to admit thousands of Syrians who are fleeing their war-torn country.

North Carolina Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Mark Walker joined in the tense exchange between senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State and members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Walker questioned why the United States has admitted few Christian Syrians who have been granted refugee status. Four percent, or 96, of the 2,400 Syrian refugees who’ve come to the United States since 2011 are Christian or other religions considered minorities in their home country, State Department officials said.

Walker said he thought the number was lower – 53 Christians, which he said he’d read in news reports and Wikipedia – and he peppered Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration issues, with questions. He balked at her testimony that fewer Christians are seeking refugee status because they feel safe under President Bashar Assad.

The congressman seemed frustrated with Richard’s response and interrupted part of her testimony to replay an earlier statement she’d made to the oversight committee chairman, Sen. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Chaffetz, too, had heated dialogues with security officials Thursday over the issue of Christian refugees.

Richard explained that just 10 percent of Syria’s prewar population identified as Christian and those people aren’t leaving the country at the same rate of others, such as Muslims, since civil war broke out.

Still, Walker accused the State Department of having a credibility issue.

Meadows questioned Alan Bersin, the Department of Homeland Security’s chief diplomatic officer and assistant secretary for international affairs, over the federal government’s inability to keep tabs on whether every traveler who enters the country under a visa waiver program leaves in the allowed time frame of three months or less.

Nearly 20 million people enter the U.S. annually under the visa waiver program, which permits citizens of 38 countries to enter for business or tourism on a short-term basis without obtaining visas, Bersin said. The program excludes travelers from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has said that at least 1 million overstayed their visas in 2011 and 2013. It’s estimated that nearly 400,000 people overstayed during the past year, officials said Thursday.

“We know a certain portion – those who come by air and leave by air,” Bersin said in response to Meadows’ criticisms. He added that the government also has an agreement with Canada to receive alerts when non-U.S. and Canadian citizens leave the country over the northern border.

But, Meadows pressed, saying emphatically to Bersin, “You don’t know who leaves this country,” and he asked for a figure on how many people overstay their visas. Bersin, visibly flustered, said, “No, I’m not going to give you a number,” explaining that the figure would be available in an official report to Congress next year.

That, too, drew Meadows’ ire. Homeland Security, Meadows said, promised in December 2013 that lawmakers would see the number and the report, and they’re still waiting.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @adouglasnews