Republican congressional leaders are moving to apply greater scrutiny to Syrian refugees – and a certification that they’re safe – before allowing any to enter the United States.
Republicans in both chambers called for a temporary halt in Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, citing the deadly Paris terrorist attacks. They began crafting legislation to implement the policy and planned to vote on one proposal Thursday in the House. Another option: attaching new proposals to a bill needed to keep the government running after Dec. 11.
If no spending bill is approved by that date, parts of the government could shut down. While that’s highly unlikely, the prospect at least created a deadline for acting on the refugee issue.
The move came a day after more than half of U.S. governors objected to plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S., with some declaring that they will not allow resettlement in their states.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed an executive order Monday prohibiting state agencies or organizations receiving money from the state from assisting in the relocation of Syrian refugees in Kansas.
Affected would be future families like one from Syria now living and struggling to get by in Overland Park. The family of four lost everything when their hometown was destroyed by government bombs.
“It is very sad to hear these things from governors,” the husband and father of the Syrian immigrant family said Tuesday. “Let them do all kind of security check. Nobody will mind.”
The man asked that his name and photo not be used out of concern for his family here and in Syria.
The Refugee Processing Center database shows that eight refugees from Syria have already been settled in Kansas since the civil war in that country began in 2011. Missouri has 29.
Immigration lawyers say the federal government has jurisdiction in the matter. Besides, there is nothing to stop refugees from crossing state borders once they are admitted into this country.
The family now living in Overland Park is from Homs in Syria. They were living in the United Arab Emirates while the father worked a professional job in Dubai in quality control for the oil and gas industry. Their last visit to Syria was in 2010.
Pro-democracy protests there began in March 2011, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down. Bombs rained on Homs and other cities.
“I lost my house, I lost my car,” said the 50-year-old father. “My parents’ house. My brother’s house. So we have four or five houses already destroyed. Most of the people there tried to run away to other cities, and some of them run away to Turkey and some to the Gulf countries.”
The father’s job in Dubai ended in 2012, and the family had a month to leave the country. They could not go home. The older daughter, now almost 16, had been born during a family visit to the United States, so she was a U.S. citizen. The rest of the family applied to the U.S. consulate for visas.
They were granted for the man’s wife and younger daughter, now almost 13. He sent them ahead, to Kansas because he had a cousin who was a doctor there. The man had to undergo a more intensive security check.
“So at that time I say, ‘OK where I have to go?’ ” the man said. “I have only two places to go. The refugee camp in Jordan or in Turkey. I said to myself, ‘No way, I can’t go there.’ So I tried to find another job, but I could not because the market was crashed.”
After five months without his family, the man’s U.S. visa was approved. Once in this country, he applied for asylum for his entire family.
Andrea Martinez, a lawyer with the McCrummen Immigration Law Group in North Kansas City, said the standard is the same for a refugee as for someone applying for asylum after already entering this country. They have to show that they would be persecuted if they returned to their own country because of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or social group.
The Overland Park family was granted asylum in June this year. They have been receiving government benefits, but those run out after six months. The family has gone through about $70,000 in savings, and the father is looking for work.
Meanwhile, their homeland has descended further into chaos. According to the BBC, more than 4 million people have fled Syria since the conflict began, and another 7.6 million have been internally displaced. More than 250,000 Syrians have died.
The conflict has become a proxy war, drawing in Iran and Russia as well as the United States fighting an air war against the Islamic State.
“Nobody knows when this hell is going to be finished,” the Overland Park immigrant said.
But many Republicans embraced calls by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to temporarily suspend the refugee program. At the same time, some GOP members on and off Capitol Hill demanded a permanent end to the Syrian refugee program.
“Our nation has always been welcoming,” Ryan said after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans.
“This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of the refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”
The House is likely to vote Thursday on a bill proposed by Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, that would require the FBI director, director of National Intelligence and the attorney general to certify that every refugee admitted to the U.S. isn’t a security threat and mandates that the FBI director affirm that background checks were conducted on all admitted refugees by agreed-upon standards.
“What I heard today reinforces every preconceived notion that I had going into it that the vetting process we have is not complete, and bringing these 10,000 in now does pose a grave risk that terrorists could exploit it,” Hudson said as he left a closed-door briefing for House members Tuesday evening by FBI Director James Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Hudson and House Republican leaders had some work to do to woo Democratic support for the bill. Only one Democrat had signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill as of Tuesday night.
“When I’m back home in North Carolina, it’s not just Republicans who tell me they’re worried about a lot of people coming here that aren’t vetted,” Hudson said. “It’s Republicans and Democrats who are worried about this.”
Some congressional Democrats also could support a pause in the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
“We’re waiting for the briefing tomorrow, a pause may be necessary. We’re going to look at it,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Senate Democrat.
Ryan’s office seized upon Schumer’s remarks, calling them an example of bipartisan concern about the refugee program.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, however, was more unequivocal, saying, “We must and do subject any prospective refugee to the most rigorous scrutiny and screening.”
The Obama administration defended its screening process of refugees. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, described the process as “robust.”
“Certainly, there are some challenges to that process because of the situation in Syria,” Lynch told the committee. “But I would note, however, that we do have the benefit of having that significant and robust screening process in place, a process that Europe has not been able to set up, which renders them more vulnerable.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, disagreed. “It is without a doubt in the best interest of the American people and the national security to immediately halt any plans to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in the United States,” he said.