House Republicans and the Obama administration have put together “a coalition of cowardice” that screws over Syrian refugees, some of the most vulnerable people in the world, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
That’s according to Syrian-American opposition activists, who say the Obama administration’s Syria policy failures have contributed to millions fleeing the country for a safe haven, while House Republicans are now effectively denying them a place to run to.
House Republicans are backing the passage of new legislation Thursday that would severely tighten the vetting process for Iraqi and Syrian refugees, amid security concerns. Proponents insist that the bill would only create a “pause” in the admission of new refugees while the Obama administration implements a new system. But in effect, the bureau such a law would create will grind the refugee process to a halt, say experts who have followed the Syrian refugee issue closely.
“Let us be very clear about what this legislation is attempting to do—it will effectually put a halt on accepting any refugees, without actually saying that’s what the intention is,” said Muna Jondy, an immigration lawyer and government relations chair for United for a Free Syria.
Republicans behind the bill are likely aware of how bad it would look to propose a bill explicitly barring all Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Instead, the legislation they have proposed, known as the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, would require a unanimous certification by the secretary of homeland security, the FBI director, and the director of National Intelligence that each individual refugee is not a security threat.
That process for potential refugees would be so onerous that few, if any, individuals would be able make it through. The current vetting process for admitting refugees already takes some 18 to 24 months for a typical applicant. The existing process, which already includes enhanced vetting for Syrian refugees, likely takes substantially longer.
The United States has taken in fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees of some 4 million fleeing violence. The vast majority of those admitted are women, children, and the elderly: Half brought to the U.S. are children. Only 2 percent are single males of “combat age.”
In private meetings with Republican lawmakers, the major forces behind the bill have stressed that the legislation’s effect would be to end refugee flow—in the near term, if not indefinitely.
The legislation features “roadblocks that are put in place make sure that the program cannot continue” until and unless the criteria are met, a House Homeland Security Committee aide told The Daily Beast.
“The presumption is that at some point the national security officials that are charged with certifying these admissions [will do so]... our intention with this bill is absolutely on the level and very straightforward,” the aide said.
That may not be a very good presumption.
“It’s obvious that the lawmakers behind this bill understand that a complicated and expanded bureaucracy is their best bet to halt all Syrian refugees from making it into the United States,” added Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American opposition umbrella group. “After all, current standards are already so restrictive and time-consuming that after four years of war, only about 2,000 Syrians have been settled in the U.S., out of hundreds of thousands that have applied.”
In a Wednesday meeting of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of conservative GOP members, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) were placed at the front of the room to explain the legislation.
It was important, one of the Republican lawmakers present said, to “appear reasonable” in the treatment of refugees, according to a source in the room.
But during the meeting, described to The Daily Beast by multiple individuals present, the members pressed Hudson and McCaul on why the bill wasn’t even more restrictive.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) asked why nationals from Yemen and Somalia, as well as people from other countries where terrorists are known to originate, weren’t included in the bill, according to multiple sources. McCaul responded that he had proposed that to the leadership but that they asked for the bill to be narrower in scope, which is why just Iraqi and Syrian refugees are mentioned in it.
Another lawmaker pointed out that 3 million refugees had been brought into the United States since the 1970s and asked whether the bill shouldn’t be broadened so that law enforcement could keep an eye on them. And yet another member of Congress suggested that the United States only let Christians in, a concept that was poorly received in the room.
While the Republicans in Congress are shutting the door on refugees, they’re simultaneously making the point that the Obama administration has promoted policies that have contributed to the refugee crisis in the first place.
The refugee crisis is driven by violence among various parties in Syria, including the Assad regime, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS. Critics say the Obama administration has not acted to create a no-fly zone or safe zone to protect fleeing civilian populations, its air campaign against ISIS has had a marginal effect on ISIS’s fighting strength, and the president famously failed to act after the Assad regime crossed his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.
“This is a very difficult process, a war zone, that the president has allowed to evolve. As a result of the United States not having leadership, millions of people have been displaced,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) said. “We need to focus on the root cause of the refugee crisis—the crisis in Syria and Iraq and the lack of a strategy to defeat ISIS.”
“I think that what makes us safe is not just dealing with the refugee problem, it’s dealing with the source of the problem,” said presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “The refugee problem is a symptom of a failed strategy. Some people approach the refugee problem as if you’ve solved that, you’ve solved the problem. You have not.”
So while bipartisanship appears so often nonexistent in Washington, the Obama administration and House Republicans are willing to team up—two separate policies that will add to human suffering.
“House Republicans are now joining the White House in a coalition of cowardice, forgoing traditional American values, and trying to close their eyes to the suffering of Syrians. They have shown what they think of America’s responsibility to promote freedom and dignity, shopping a bill that seeks to abandon the most direct victims of tyranny and terror,” Barrett said.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff and Olivia Nuzzi