Feeling pressure to respond to President Barack Obama’s ongoing plan to resettle Syrian refugees to the United States, House and Senate Republican lawmakers on Tuesday united around the idea of pausing such admissions into the country.
After more than half of the nation’s governors voiced opposition to taking in Syrian refugees into their states, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they support a moratorium on the refugee program until the U.S. comes up with a stronger process to ensure that terrorists cannot sneak into the country.
“Our nation has always been welcoming,” Ryan, R-Wis., said at a news conference. “But we cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”
The calls for action come in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, has taken responsibility for the attacks, and there are fears that one of the attackers had posed as a Syrian refugee in order to enter France, although each of the attackers whose nationality has been confirmed so far is of European descent.
Despite the promises for action, the mechanism by which Republicans leaders are aiming to address the refugee program shows the sensitivity of the issue.
Ryan on Tuesday hinted he would prefer to have the House vote on standalone legislation this week that would not be tied to must-pass government spending bills that need to be approved by Dec. 11.
“I applaud Speaker Ryan for wanting to respond quickly because I think that’s what the American people want,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told The Daily Signal in an interview.
“As long as we give something to the president to sign before Dec. 11, that hopefully allows us to avoid policy riders that would be part of an omnibus [spending bill] going forward. The quicker we address the issue, the cleaner the omnibus becomes, and hopefully the less problematic it is.”
In addition, Ryan’s office told The Washington Post that he is ruling out changes to the refugee program that would prohibit the entry of Syrian refugees simply because they are Muslim, which is something that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has pushed for.
Ryan set up a task force to address the refugee issue made up of chairmen of the relevant committees, who are leading the charge on how to proceed.
The House filed the first of what could be multiple standalone bills late Tuesday night.
That legislation, called the “America SAFE Act of 2015”, would force the FBI director, in consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence, to assure Congress that every refugee admitted from Syria and Iraq is not a security threat. The bill is expected to be voted on Thursday, the last day before lawmakers leave for Thanksgiving break.
If the House and Senate cannot pass a standalone measure, Meadows says lawmakers are prepared to put forth riders to the omnibus spending bill, including one that he is working on that would allow states who do not want Syrian refugees to deny federal funding intended to support them.
The chief concern of most Republicans is security-related.
“We are a nation who are always welcoming to immigrants, but we have always made sure people who are coming are people who we can trust and properly vet,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who spoke at the Conversations with Conservatives event on Capitol Hill.
“I asked the FBI director if he can assure that people from Syria can be properly vetted, and he could not assure the people of my district. My number one responsibility is to protect the people of my district. At the same time, we cannot allow terrorists to change who we are as nation.”
Many of the critics of Obama’s refugee program point to comments that FBI Director James Comey made about the program last month.
During congressional testimony, Comey said that Syrian refugees are particularly hard to screen because the war-torn country has few criminal terrorist and criminal databases to check.
“If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,” Comey said, although he assured the screening process has “improved dramatically” over time. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”
Despite those concerns, the Obama administration and refugee groups insist that the resettlement vetting process is rigorous, especially for Syrians.
The process, taking up to two years in total, begins with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which determines if applicants meet the legal definition of a refugee and are thus eligible for resettlement in the U.S.
Refugees go through in-person interviews, health tests, and other security checks with multiple government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
The Obama administration says that the U.S. has resettled more than 3 million refugees from around the world since the resettlement program began in mid-1970s.
Four million Syrian refugees—nearly a fifth of the population—have fled the country since the civil war began there four years ago, but just over 2,100 Syrian refugees have settled in the U.S. since 2012, according to the State Department.
Countries closer to Syria, like Turkey and Lebanon, have taken in most of the refugees.
Every year, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets a ceiling for how many refugees the U.S. will take in from throughout the world.
In September, Obama announced plans to admit a total of 85,000 refugees by the end of fiscal year 2016, including 10,000 from Syria.
Though Republicans understand America’s traditional role as the chief provider of freedom and safety to the needy, some lawmakers argue that the Syrian refugee situation is different.
“I think as a people there is the compassionate Christian side of us who want to make sure fleeing refugees have a safe haven, and at the same time if those fleeing refugees cannot be verified to indeed be safe than it is a counterproductive activity and not in the interest of American citizens [to resettle them],” Meadows said.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest action in the House.