“These attacks and many others were made possible because of our extremely open immigration system, which fails to properly vet and screen the individuals or families coming into our country.”
— Donald Trump, campaign rally speech, Sept. 19, 2016
Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt: “Why do they care so much if you use the word ‘bombing’ or not? I mean, we’re talking about a terrorist attack and there are bigger issues here. Why is that?” […]
Trump: “Well, that’s not really the reason. The reason is because my poll numbers now are so good that they are so worried. … I mean, it’s common sense, but they will do anything. Think of it, Hillary Clinton wants to allow hundreds of thousands of these same people that are, you know, they have such hatred and sickness in their heart. It’s sickness, and it’s hatred, and she wants to allow hundreds of thousands more to come in.”
— Exchange on “Fox and Friends,” Sept. 19, 2016
In response to Saturday’s bombings in Manhattan and Seaside Park, N.J., Trump touted his plan to stem immigration, with a focus on Muslims, and criticized Hillary Clinton’s proposal to accept Syrian refugees.
On Monday, the New York Police Department identified Ahmad Khan Rahami in connection to the bombings. Rahami was apprehended Monday after a shootout with police.
Trump blamed the bombings on the “extremely open immigration system” in the United States and criticized Clinton’s proposal to accept at least 65,000 more refugees from war-torn Syria. (In the Fox interview, Trump incorrectly says Clinton wants to admit “hundreds of thousands” of Syrian refugees.) But what does the refugee resettlement process have to do with Rahami?
There’s always the possibility of inaccurate or incomplete reports in a fluid breaking news situation, such as these bombings. So we will go by what law enforcement has released, which Trump should be going by as well, unless he somehow has direct knowledge of Rahami and his immigration background.
Here’s what we know so far.
Rahami, 28, was born in Afghanistan, came to the United States with his family when he was young and was naturalized, according to the FBI. He lived in New Jersey with his family, above the family’s restaurant, First American Chicken in Elizabeth, N.J. Members of the Rahami family have owned and operated the restaurant since 2002, according to The Washington Post’s review of court records.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), member of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Post that Rahami’s “trips to Afghanistan changed him,” adding that the 28-year-old had also visited Pakistan at some point. Neighbors told the New York Times that Rahami showed signs of radicalization after he visited Afghanistan. But as of Monday night, law enforcement had not yet confirmed whether Rahami was influenced by international terror organizations or had any links to them.
“I do not have information yet to show what the path of radicalization was,” said William Sweeney, FBI special agent in New York, at a news conference on Monday afternoon. Law enforcement said there was no indication Rahami was part of a larger network.
As of Monday night, NBC News and the Daily Beast cited anonymous U.S. officials to say that Rahami arrived in the United States in 1995 as the son of an Afghan asylum seeker. But no law enforcement agency had confirmed this detail. The Department of Homeland Security did not provide any information to The Fact Checker about Rahami’s immigration history.
Such information is not always accurate. For example, the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombings were identified as refugees in initial news reports. But later, it was revealed that the brothers ended up in the United States as minors because their father applied for asylum.
Also on Saturday, 22-year-old Dahir Adan was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer after stabbing nine people in a Minnesota mall. A news agency linked to the Islamic State claimed he was a “soldier” of the militant group, but law enforcement found no evidence of direct or indirect communications and said Adan appeared to be a lone attacker. Adan moved to the United States from Kenya at age 2 and grew up in Minnesota.
The problem with Trump linking the bombings to an “extremely open immigration system” or Clinton’s plan to admit Syrian refugees is that we don’t know all the details of Rahami’s immigration history yet. Trump misleads the public by saying that Syrian refugees waiting to gain entry into the United States are people who have “such hatred and sickness in their heart” and by comparing them to Rahami. (The Trump campaign did not respond to our request for clarification.)
Even if the family’s status as asylum seekers were confirmed, there is a difference between refugees and those given asylum. Refugees are screened outside of the United States and are referred for resettlement mainly by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Asylum seekers apply for asylum once they are in the United States or at the border. Asylum status is available to people who meet the definition of a refugee; successful asylum seekers obtain refugee status, though the screening protocol is different.
Resettled refugees have not been a major terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland (we took a deep-dive into this issue last year). On occasion, refugees have posed terrorism threats and have been linked to international terrorist groups: There have been at least 10 occasions since 2009 when refugees were arrested on terrorism-related charges in the United States, but that’s a tiny percentage of the refugees admitted in that period.
By contrast, homegrown terrorism, especially among lone attackers who are not a part of a larger network, is a growing concern, especially American citizens who are radicalized online.
The Pinocchio Test
Based on the information we have so far, the suspect in the bombings was an American who became radicalized. He came to the United States at a young age with his family and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. It’s unconfirmed yet how Rahami entered the United States — whether he gained refugee status or asylum-seeker status or received some type of visa. This points to radicalization of those living legally in the United States, which is a different matter than what Trump talked about in response to the bombings on Monday.
Instead, Trump blamed the bombings on the “extremely open immigration system” and to the “hatred and sickness” of refugees (including from Syria). But this is quite misleading. Rahami’s potential for radicalization while legally living in the U.S. and legally traveling to his home country is not something that would be caught through a vetting system upon entry. Only a minuscule number of refugees are ever linked to terrorism. Moreover, Trump exaggerates the number of Syrian refugees Clinton has said she would accept.
In Trump’s view, refugees (Syrian or otherwise), homegrown terrorism, asylum seekers and naturalized citizens of Afghan descent may all fit into one bucket. But that’s not how it works, and it’s overly misleading to make such sweeping claims with such little, credible information at hand.
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