So let's dissect them, piece by piece.
Trump Claim No. 1: Syrian refugees might be members of the Islamic State or terrorists
Verdict: Possible, but highly unlikely
Refugees are subject to more scrutiny and background checks that any other group admitted to the United States. That comes to us from a State Department spokesperson not authorized to speak on the record.
That screening includes health checks, repeated biometric verification of identity, several layers of biographical and background screening, and in-person interviews. Multiple agencies are involved in the process, including the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Defense. And all of this happens before a refugee's application for resettlement is ever approved or rejected and long before a refugee enters the United States.
In fairness to Trump, it is true that in 2009, two male refugees from Iraq with what a State Department spokesperson described as "terrorist ties" were identified while living in Kentucky. The men, now in federal prison, set roadside bombs while living in Iraq and attempted to arm Iraqi insurgents after their arrival in the United States.
On balance, though, the Kentucky case was an extremely rare event. And over the past 30 years alone, the United States has resettled at least 3 million refugees.
Trump Claim No. 2: The U.S. security screening process might not stop a planned attack
Verdict: Again, possible but unlikely
The Kentucky case led the Obama administration to intensify the refugee screening process and to compare fingerprints gathered from explosive devices in the Middle East to refugees living in the United States. This also led to additional screenings to which all refugees are now subjected, said Larry Bartlett, the director the State Department's Refugee Admission Office. And, Syrian refugees are subject to yet another layer of screening, Bartlett said.
In the past five years, the security screening process has become a far longer adventure for people often living in dire conditions, Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy with Church World Service's Immigration and Refugee Program, told The Fix. Five years ago, the country's security screening process averaged up to 15 months, according to Smyers, but today this process can stretch as long as 36 months or three years.
As a result, Smyers and representatives from many other organizations spent time at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. Smyers was there to argue for changes to the refugee screening process. Smyers says simple changes to the order of certain steps in process would leave a robust clearance program in place but eliminate unnecessary redundancies, red tape and difficulties.
What we do know is that extended waits can contribute to the number of people desperate enough to undertake a highly dangerous journey and enter a third country illegally. People in refugee camps cannot legally work. In some camps child mortality rates are alarmingly high and people live in tents. Many others are housed in buildings without heat or running water.
Look closely at the details in the graphic below. The data on the upper left — from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — lists the 10 countries contributing the largest share of migrants attempting illegal crossings in the Mediterranean. Some are desperate refugees, many from Syria. The arrows and numbers on the map to the right depict routes taken. And the chart in the lower right captures the worldwide share of unauthorized migrants traveling in this sea who are men, women and children.
One final note here: The United States will not resettle Syrians who have fled to Europe, Bartlett said. The United States is, however, supplying aid to countries near Syria where Syrian refugees have amassed. And in September, the administration committed to screening and granting U.S. entry to at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Trump Claim No. 3: Syrian refugees are overwhelmingly male
Verdict: Simply not true
While the graphic above shows that about 7 in 10 refugees making their way across the Mediterranean are adult men, the overall refugee picture is much more balanced. (The adult-male skew above makes more sense when you consider the danger involved in the journey.)
Among the 4.05 million Syrians who have fled their country and then registered with UNHCR (the United Nation's refugee agency), there are actually slightly more women than men. Again, these are the people driven out of their homes in Syria who entered a second country or the border region near one. To put this plainly for Americans, the people in the chart below are waiting in that possibly three-year line to clear the screening process. Some have turned down human smugglers' offers.
In 2010, 147,426 Syrian-American immigrants and their descendants lived in the United States in. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2014 the U.S. admitted about 200 Syrian refugees. Other forms of immigration from the country were severely curtailed by the conflict. In fiscal 2015, which ended in September, the U.S. managed to screen and admit 1,682 Syrian refugees — a big increase but still a relatively small number. Now, we have agreed to admit another 10,000 Syrian refugees (who have cleared security screenings) by the end of September 2016.
So, it is exceedingly unlikely the 50,000-man sleeper cell that Trump describes will form. And that 200,000-man army? That's all but impossible.
Trump claim No. 4: If Trump is elected president, Syrian refugees will all be returned
Verdict: Highly unlikely and a violation of long-standing international policy.
By the early 1940s — when Adolf Hitler's plan to eliminate Jews was known to U.S. intelligence agencies — several countries, including the United States and Britain, had implemented policies making it more difficult for Jewish refugees to enter the United States.
At the time, there were lawmakers who argued that the number of European immigrants, including Jewish refugees, should be limited for security reasons. Those who took such a position claimed that these individuals were vulnerable to blackmail and could be forced by the German government into becoming U.S.-based spies. Residual Great Depression-induced economic anxiety also contributed to limited public support for a more accommodating response. Naked anti-Semitism also played a major role.
Many, many people suffered horribly and died.
In the decades that followed, the United States signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees, a binding international agreement that, among other conditions, required signatory nations to agree not to return any refugee to a country in which their lives would be in danger.
The United States, like all countries, can refuse entry to those who pose a security risk. It can deport or jail someone who has committed an offense. But what's really critical to understand here is this: Refugee resettlement is intended to be a long-term and durable solution in the lives of people who have typically experienced horrific things.