Administration officials and charities that aid refugees fought a feverish rearguard action Tuesday to defend President Obama’s plans to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. this year, but with opposition building, Republicans and even a key Democrat said it may be time for the White House to hit “pause.”
House Republican leaders said they would try to schedule a vote this week on legislation that would require the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and intelligence chiefs to sign off on any refugees.
“We have a refugee situation that we think requires a pause and a more comprehensive assessment on how to better guarantee that members of ISIS are not infiltrating themselves among the refugee population,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.
Mr. Obama wasn’t giving up. He deployed top officials to Capitol Hill, set up calls to brief the press and had aides try to win back support from dozens of governors who said they would do everything in their power to stymie the president’s attempts to resettle Syrians in their states.
But the officials failed to make much headway — and even acknowledged that they sometimes had to rely on the refugees to self-report their own criminal histories.
With that, fear was boiling over. One senator locked in a tight election runoff this weekend said a Syrian refugee in his home state of Louisiana was “missing” and was likely headed to Washington.
Refugee advocates said there is nothing unusual in the report and that refugees are free to travel wherever they want within the U.S., but that only fed worries that the government can’t keep track of refugees once they arrive.
More than half of the nation’s governors have said they will resist efforts to deploy refugees to their states.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, ordered his state agencies to refuse to cooperate with resettlement efforts and called on nonprofits that do resettlement work in his state to stop.
“I cannot allow New Jersey to participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees — any one of whom could be connected to terrorism — being placed in our state,” the former federal prosecutor said in a letter to Mr. Obama.
Erol Kekic, executive director of the refugee program at Church World Service, one of the nonprofits operating in New Jersey, said governors were being unfair in singling out Syrian refugees, “who happen to be the most scrutinized group of travelers we’ve ever had to the U.S.”
“It’s just sad and really deeply disturbing that political figures who wish to be our president are sinking that low,” Mr. Kekic said.
He said governors don’t have a veto over refugees but could make it tough for nonprofits to operate. Still, he said, there are workarounds that can keep the resettlements going.
Speaking early Wednesday, at a summit in Manila, Philippines, Mr. Obama intensified his criticism of Republicans over the issue, saying they are giving in to “hysteria.”
“We are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic,” Mr. Obama said. “We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.”
He even blamed Republicans for playing into the hands of terrorists by trying to block Muslim refugees from coming to the U.S. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for [the Islamic State] than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate,” the president said.
Mr. Obama has committed the U.S. to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016, which began Oct. 1. Already, 187 of those arrived in October. Nearly 1,700 were accepted in the previous fiscal year.
Some Democrats and refugee advocates had called on the U.S. to accept as many as 100,000 Syrians. Millions of Syrians have fled a civil war that Mr. Obama and other world leaders have struggled to contain.
The refugee program first drew fire when Mr. Obama set the 10,000 goal this fall. Opposition skyrocketed after the terrorist attacks in Paris, where at least one suicide bomber was identified as a man who arrived in a group of Syrian refugees, used a false passport and gained entry to the European Union before joining the other attackers in France.
Mr. Obama insists that the government has the ability to screen out would-be terrorists. Applicants have to go through in-person interviews, submit fingerprints to be put into databases, and face background checks to verify their stories.
Still, FBI Director James B. Comey dented the program this fall when he said the U.S. doesn’t have access to databases or other on-the-ground resources in Syria, making it tougher to verify stories.
The White House deployed Mr. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to Capitol Hill for a closed-door, classified briefing to try to quell the furor among House Republicans, but they made little ground.
“I’m leaving this briefing far less comfortable than when I came in the first place,” Rep. Matt Salmon, Arizona Republican, told reporters.
Ahead of that briefing, top Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, huddled to settle on a legislative strategy. They are working on a bill that would impose tighter background checks and require certification by Mr. Comey that he has been able to close the gaps in the system. It also would require Mr. Comey, Mr. Johnson and the director of national intelligence to certify that each potential refugee is not a security threat.
The debate has devolved into an issue of trust, and Mr. Obama is suffering a serious deficit with congressional Republicans. Mr. Salmon said he doubted the same people who botched the president’s plans to arm pro-American Syrian rebels could successfully weed out dangerous refugees in the population.
Refugee advocates said the tenor of the debate has risked upsetting a decadeslong tradition of bipartisan support for resettlement. The U.S. has accepted 3 million refugees since its program began in the 1970s.
Syrian refugees already face tougher scrutiny than usual, officials said. All of their applications are reviewed at Homeland Security headquarters, and most already have files at the U.N. refugee office, giving investigators a leg up.
About 50 percent of applicants have been approved, but that number will rise, officials said.
Where the refugees end up is decided at a weekly meeting between government officials and the nine nongovernmental organizations that do resettlement.
They first look to place refugees near any family already in the U.S. and then consider factors such as where the refugees are likely to find jobs or have access to services they might need. In the case of Syrian children, they often look for nearby medical facilities that can handle children who have been traumatized by war.
About half of the Syrian refugees settled so far have been children, and another quarter are 60 or older. Just 2 percent are single males of “combat age,” administration officials said.
Some 180 cities across the country have resettled refugees — but big ones such as Washington and New York aren’t on the list. The cost of living turns out to be too high, the State Department said.
Instead, the top major cities include Atlanta, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Boston, the State Department said. There are a host of medium-sized cities as well: Boise, Idaho; Nashville, Tennessee; Tucson, Arizona; Buffalo, New York; and Erie, Pennsylvania.
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