WASHINGTON (CN) — Republicans put an immigration official in the hot seat Wednesday over the 40 refugees implicated in terrorist conspiracies. The Obama administration leaves this group out when boasting that no refugees admitted to the United States have been convicted of committing a violent domestic act of terrorism.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing came the same day that the White House officially announced plans for the United States to admit 110,000 refugees in 2017, up from 85,000 this year.
Of this group, 40,000 will be refugees from the Near East and South Asia, an area that encompasses the Middle East.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, who chairs the Immigration and the National Interest Subcommittee, put out a report
in June that says the U.S. refugee-resettlement program admitted 40 individuals who were later convicted of or implicated in terrorism since 9/11.
At Wednesday's hearing, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Leon Rodriguez conceded the relevance of such convictions.
But Rodriguez also emphasized significant improvements to the vetting process in the four or five years since the plots involving those 40 refugees were thwarted.
"Many of those cases involve admissions that took place awhile ago," Rodriquez said, crediting them with leading to "a number of improvements that we've made over the years."
In the wake of terror attacks in Europe and in the United States inspired by the Islamic State group, America's refugee-admissions process has come under heavy scrutiny.
Many Republicans in particular view Muslim refugees from Syria as a security threat.
Anti-refugee sentiment is running high, stoked by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has said he wants to temporarily shut down resettlement for Syrian refugees.
Security concerns around this group emerged in full force during the hearing on next year's refugee program.
The Obama administration insists otherwise, but many Republicans believe America's vetting system cannot stop would-be terrorists from exploiting the refugee system.
"It's simply not possible to vet Syrian refugees," said Sen. Sessions, an Alabama Republican.
Refugees undergo the most intensive screening process of any group of people seeking entry to the United States. The process can take months, sometimes years, and Syrian refugees undergo additional screening. State Department officials have said that applications are denied when information cannot be verified.
But Sessions said there is no way for U.S. agencies to adequately screen Syrian refugees because of gaps in data, or for possible radicalization post-entry.
Rodriguez acknowledged data gaps for Syrian refugees, but told the committee that Syrian refugees still undergo rigorous screening that includes an intensive interview.
He stressed that the vetting is thorough, but not risk-free.
Wednesday's hearing showcased the fracture between Republicans and Democrats on this issue.
After a 15-minute opening statement from Sessions, which focused on perceived risks of the program, Sen. Dick Durbin turned the focus to the plight of the refugees.
The Illinois Democrat displayed the iconic photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi's dead body. Kurdi drowned with 11 other Syrian refugees while trying to reach the Greek Island of Kos. His body washed up on a beach in Turkey.
"Imagine what it must be like to be a mother or father in Syria, this war-torn country," Durbin said. "The impossible choices you face."
Durbin called on three refugee service members and roughly 15 other refugees - including professors, lawyers and business owners - present at the hearing, to stand up. The hearing room filled with applause.
It was a warm moment that humanized refugees fleeing dire circumstances. More than half the entire Syrian population has been displaced by a brutal civil war that has killed more than 400,000 Syrians.
Rodriguez reminded the committee that the overwhelming majority of refugees are law-abiding citizens. He defended the program and the strength of the vetting process throughout the hearing, but Republicans pounded away over the 40 cases identified in Sessions' report.
Sen. David Vitter questioned Rodriguez on his knowledge of them, and why his agency has been unable to provide a solid number of refugees convicted on terrorism-related charges.
"Have you personally reviewed all of those cases," asked Vitter, a Louisiana Republican. "Because again, as the chair said, we've asked for the total number. And your department, and other agencies, have been unable to give us a number. Have you personally reviewed that universe of cases, both with regard to the total number and the specific circumstances, perhaps common threads, of those cases?"
Rodriguez responded: "I can't tell you that I have."
"Shouldn't you know that number," Vitter asked.
"Perhaps we know it as an agency," Rodriguez said after a moment of silence." I have some rough sense of the number, I don't specifically know the number," he added.
Rodriguez said the agency reviews a lot of cases, and makes improvements to the vetting system along the way.