The arrest of a California man on charges that he traveled to Syria to fight with terrorist groups, then lied about it to the Department of Homeland Security, offers new ammunition for both sides in the fierce debate over the refugee policy of the Obama administration.
Conservatives and some federal law enforcement officials say the case of the Californian, Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab, 23, shows that the refugee program leaves the nation vulnerable to terrorism. But Homeland Security officials and Democrats in Congress contend that his arrest demonstrates that the system works.
The ambiguities of Mr. Jayab’s arrest last month are at the core of a dispute over whether the United States should tightly restrict immigration from countries associated with terrorism, or should join some European nations in accepting rigorously screened applicants in order to help stem the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., have prompted a broader examination of America’s immigration policy because some officials fear that terrorists could exploit the ways people enter the country.
Before his arrest, Mr. Jayab seemed like a typical young adult: He liked sports cars, studied computer programming at a community college in Sacramento and worked nights as a security guard.
But the federal authorities have charged that Mr. Jayab, who was born in Iraq and came to the United States as a refugee from Syria, traveled to that war-torn country from late 2013 to early 2014 to fight on the side of terrorist groups and then lied about it to the authorities. He faces up to eight years in prison if convicted.
“Jihadists see these programs as a back door into America and will continue to exploit them until we take action,” said Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, during a hearing this month on refugee and visa programs.
But supporters of the administration’s program, like Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said the arrest of Mr. Jayab and other refugees shows that the system succeeded in blunting a threat. He added that the long screening process for Syrian refugees makes it unlikely that terrorists would try to come to the United States as refugees.
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