Under pressure to respond to Paris attacks, Congress considers more restrictions on Syrian refugees

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
After the attacks in Paris last Friday, politicians in the United States have largely focused on the question of more restrictions on Syrian refugees.

WASHINGTON — The terrorist attacks in Paris last week have reverberated soundly on this side of the Atlantic — and perhaps no more so than in Washington, where policymakers and elected officials are using the kind of anti-terrorist rhetoric not seen since the days after the 9-11 attacks.

Members of Congress are feeling pressure from constituents and the media to offer some kind of response to the Paris attacks that might make the United States safer, and Republicans — along with some Democrats — have fixated on one issue in particular: the millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Congressional Republicans, including Minnesota’s three GOP representatives, swiftly called for a tougher refugee vetting process and a suspension in the country’s resettlement of refugees from Syria, while President Barack Obama and many congressional Democrats have defended the system in place and spoken of the need to aid those victimized by ISIS.

For some, the idea has taken hold that ISIS and other terror groups are taking advantage of the refugee exodus by planting their operatives as refugees and sending them into western countries to carry out attacks. Evidence gathered thus far, though, indicates that none of the eight men who terrorized Paris last Friday went to Europe as refugees.

By most accounts, the U.S. vetting system for refugees is rigorous, and regularly takes up to two years. However, on Wednesday, House Republicans introduced legislation to make refugee vetting even tougher. The Republican bill is likely to pass overwhelmingly, and, according to Politico, may attract 60 Democratic votes. 

(Update: As expected, the bill passed by a wide margin, with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans to vote yes. Reps. Nolan, Peterson, and Walz joined their three Minnesota Republican colleagues in support, while Rep. McCollum was the only member of the delegation to vote no.)

Currently, there are about 1,600 Syrian refugees in the United States, and only a few of those families were resettled in Minnesota. The White House says it plans to take 10,000 refugees over the next year.

Over 30 governors, both Democratic and Republican, have stated they would not allow resettlement of refugees from Syria in their states. (The State Department has said governors don’t have the authority to do that, and Obama called the moves “hysterical.”) Gov. Mark Dayton was one of the few governors to say he’d continue allowing Syrian refugees to resettle in his state.

Republicans seek more restrictions

That move, according to Second District Rep. John Kline, was a mistake. “We should, as a country, not be bringing them in, and Minnesota doesn’t need to bring in people where we have no idea what their backgrounds are, and making it less safe for us,” he said. “We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help people in the region …we understand it’s very dangerous. It would be helpful if the president had a comprehensive strategy, and not just pick an arbitrary number,” Kline added, referring to the 10,000 Syrian refugees Obama said he wanted to admit.

Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen said in a statement that the U.S. has always been a welcoming and compassionate country, but claimed the evidence that terrorists are exploiting refugee programs can’t be ignored. “Given this very real threat, I believe it is appropriate to pause the admittance of Syrian refugees until we have certainty that refugee admission protocols will keep out those wishing to do us harm.”

In a statement, Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer said he has cosponsored legislation to make the refugee vetting process stronger, and urged Congress and the White House to get behind them. “The number one role of the federal government is to protect the American people,” he said.

Obama announced Wednesday night, however, that he intends to veto any bill proposing changes to current refugee policy.

Democrats defend refugee resettlement in Minnesota and nationwide

On the Democratic side, Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison strongly condemned attempts to suspend refugee resettlement in the U.S., and called Dayton a “courageous leader.”

“To be fearful and worried about what happened in Paris is totally legitimate, we don’t want it to happen here and we should all be trying to make sure it doesn’t,” he said. But some, he said, “are taking us from being the country of Emma Lazarus’ poem, the land of the Statue of Liberty, and converting ourselves into someone else. Letting fear make us forget basic American values is a problem.”

Ellison, whose Minneapolis district is home to many refugees from Somalia, said the current vetting system is strong enough, and it can be strengthened even as the U.S. continues to accept refugees. Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum agreed, saying that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are using advanced technology that wasn’t in place as recently as two years ago.

“It’s really unfortunate that this tragedy in France is being used to shut down a program that we’ve had in place for thoroughly vetting and screening refugees,” McCollum added. “What we should do is band together with our allies around the world to put ISIS out of business.”

First District Rep. Tim Walz said the public might not be aware how strong the current system is. “There’s the potential that there are some gaps that could be verified, but people need to recognize that the vast majority of people resettled have connections in America already,” Walz said, “and the great bulk is women and children; 2 percent are unattached males.”

In a speech delivered on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Al Franken said the U.S. can and should strike a balance between national security and meeting humanitarian obligations. “Rather than showing compassion and standing up for American values,” Franken said, “many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle want to close the door on people fleeing the most horrendous forms of persecution.” He added that Obama set a modest goal of 10,000 refugees, saying “We can and we should do more.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Amy Klobuchar told MinnPost that Klobuchar “is committed to the refugee program so long as each refugee goes through a vetting process and is deemed to be no risk to public safety.” In September, Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats called on the White House to do more about the refugee crisis and admit 65,000 Syrians.

Minnesota’s rural Democrats sounded notes of caution on the issue. Rep. Rick Nolan said refugees pose a risk “if they’re not very carefully and thoroughly vetted,” but added, “I think we have the capacity to do that. I’m not someone who wants to leave a 5-year-old orphan victim of war with no place else to go.” Rep. Collin Peterson would not say whether he supported Dayton’s decision, saying that policymakers and elected officials should “err on the side of caution.”

Military response weighed

Regardless of their stances on the refugee issue, members of both parties sounded galvanized by the Paris attacks to renew the effort to defeat ISIS. Certain to accompany the refugee debate is a discussion over a congressional authorization of military force, used in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Defense hawks intend to introduce a strong AUMF, but such measures have struggled to gain traction in recent years.

On Wednesday, Emmer went so far as to introduce in Congress an official declaration of war on ISIS, making it the first time a congressman has put one forth since World War II. It’s unlikely to gain much support.

There is also discussion, at least in the Senate, about travel visa policy. Currently, there are no visa restrictions for travelers from countries like France and Belgium, where many of the Paris terrorists were passport holders.

Ellison said that any measures that can be taken to make the United States safer should be taken, but emphasized this is a complicated problem that won’t be solved by administrative fixes, or by changing visa or refugee policy. “Legislation passed under fear,” he said, “is rarely good legislation. The answer is going to be found in diplomacy.”

Walz recalled a Wednesday hearing with former Iraq and Afghanistan ambassador Ryan Crocker, saying his message was clear: “Don’t play into [ISIS’] hands; don’t give up on our values, but make sure the system works.”

“Refugees aren’t the enemy,” Walz said. “The enemy is ISIS. We don’t need a divided nation — we need to come together on this.”

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 11/19/2015 - 11:53 am.

    A lot

    of blather from the right on this, but that is not unsurprising. The law is on the side of the refugees here, not with the xenephobic Governors. The federal government controls immigration, and while these hapless Governors can offer advice (and their own brand of fear mongering), that’s all they can do – they are otherwise impotent when actually trying to stop the government from placing these refugees in their states.
    Since 2013, there have been about 2100 Syrian refugees admitted into our country. Of that number, 60% were elderly women and children, and 2% were men above the age of 18. I guess that 2% is scary to the right (but then, what isn’t the right afraid of).

    • Submitted by Alex Hnatko on 11/19/2015 - 01:18 pm.

      2%

      If that 2% could potentially pose a legitimate threat to public security, why would we not take steps to eliminate it entirely. As cliche as it is, ‘the bad apple spoils the bunch.’ This is incredibly true given the nature of today’s wars. Not all immigrants from countries that primarily practice Islam are bad, this is true. In fact, I’d be willing to say that 99.9% of them are good people who have been oppressed and terrorized in their home lands and are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. However, all it takes is ONE radicalized individual to disrupt the peace and security in our neighborhood, and before you know it, hundreds of Americans are dead because of a single, preventable immigrant. It’s unfortunate that this is now the world we live in, but we can’t ignore security risks for the sake of humanitarian work.

      • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 11/19/2015 - 02:01 pm.

        Again

        2% are above the age of 18 (males). Does that fact alone make every one of them suspect – I would say no. I would however say that 18 months (at a minimum) of vetting is a pretty good means at detecting hostile intentions. That there is somehow a reasonable justification to use a religious test for admittance, thus bypassing the constitution is wrong. These folks are from Syria, and while they also to practice Islam, that alone should not disallow entry into the U.S.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/19/2015 - 03:50 pm.

        Modifying Your Argument

        One could take your argument and replace “immigrants from countries that primarily practice Islam” with virtually any ethnic group. Not all immigrants from the former Soviet Union are bad. However, organized crime run by Russian immigrants has “disrupted the peace and security” of many neighborhoods. You are looking for a convenient scapegoat when you demonize a group like that.

        To be honest, you don’t even need to pick on immigrants with this kind of argument. Most owners of firearms are law-abiding citizens, but all it takes is one individual to shoot up a church/kindergarten/movie theater. Are we going to take away guns, based on your logic? Based on our recent history, who poses a greater threat to our “peace and security?”

        • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 11/24/2015 - 02:50 pm.

          one difference

          I would note is that the members of ISIS are a terrorist organization that have shown a willingness and desire to embed themselves with normal law abiding refugees and attack non-military targets or civilian targets while another country such as Russia would attack strategic military targets. I think we should at least take a closer look at who we are letting in. I wouldn’t stop at Syrian refugees either since as you pointed out evil can come from anywhere but we should start with the Syrian refugees since that is the most likely scenario right now based on who we are at war with. Not doing that is simply ignorance of the real issue.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/19/2015 - 01:35 pm.

    Less and Less

    Our citizenry appears to have less and less in common, including sense.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/19/2015 - 01:43 pm.

    An update

    The bill passed with a veto proof majority, 289-137, with 47 Democrats voting in favor.

    Apparently some democrats with common sense still do exist.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/19/2015 - 03:37 pm.

      Not Even Close

      The bill still has to pass the Senate by a veto-proof majority. There are enough Democrats with common sense in that chamber to make sure that this bit of xenophobic bluster never reaches the President’s desk.

      Interesting how President Hollande–you know, the fellow in the country where the most recent attacks took place–is not backing down on plans to take in refugees.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 11/20/2015 - 08:15 am.

    Putting your head in the sand is not a policy! Well over half the Governors, who are in charge of keeping their citizens safe sided, with the House in asking for more vetting on Syrian refugees, we will see where the Senate falls. When the heads of our intelligence agencies say that proper vetting can not be done, going against Josh Easrnest and other Talking Heads for Obama, who do you believe? The “let’s just pretend this isn’t a problem” and be nice to everyone won’t protect our country. The majority of Muslims are not terrorists but all the terrorists have been Muslims lately.

    Let’s see where Hollande and other heads of countries stand in a month or 2. I see the Bosnian countries have now closed their borders. Most countries are making changes while assessing the danger of allowing millions of refugees to enter their country. Like we are trying to do.

    A no fly zone in Syria protecting the displaced folks of the region with NATO protection and services makes the most sense but Obama fights that.

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 11/20/2015 - 08:50 am.

      18-24

      months of vetting is putting your head in the sand – really. Why then, have there been no terrorists found from the 2000 Syrians already vetted as a refugees in our country. I’m sure Faux news has that answer for you.

      Using a favorite play book of the Republicans – are any of these Governors security experts?, are you. Nope, didn’t think so, but by all means use that false knowledge to further your paranoia.

      Not sure if you realize our country is not like those in Europe. We have different boarders, not at all like say Bosnia, which is surrounded by other countries. If the Syrians are having trouble crossing 3 miles of water to get to Greece, how do you think they will handle crossing the Atlantic. So, that route for the millions of potential terrorists is out. Maybe they will fly into say Bolivia, and then they will hike 1500 miles north, and then man, look out, all hell is going to break loose. Talk about burying your head in the sand.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 11/20/2015 - 12:53 pm.

        Where are the refugees who are running for their lives staying (out of our country I presume) while this 2 year evaluation takes place? They don’t have a no fly zone/protected area, thanks to Obama, in Syria. Simple question where is the refugee who asked for asylum today going to stay for 24 months?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/20/2015 - 10:57 am.

      Indeed?

      “The majority of Muslims are not terrorists but all the terrorists have been Muslims lately.” So Dylann Roof was not a terrorist? Was Wade Michael Page? The three arrested in Richmond who plotted to blow up synagogues and start a race war?

      And before you come back with Muslim counter-examples, let me remind you that you said that “all the terrorists have been Muslims lately.” Not most, or many–all.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 11/20/2015 - 09:41 am.

    The heads of the agencies involved in vetting are saying they can not properly vet these folks. There is no data base to check their claims. The only ones saying no problem are politicians and their staunch followers. So where are these thousands of refugees staying while we “vet” them for 2 years???

  6. Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/20/2015 - 01:44 pm.

    Speaking of Agency Heads

    “The bill essentially only does one important thing: It says that it is entirely up to the intelligence chiefs to personally certify that each and every refugee cleared for entry is not a threat. The result is that politicians will have effectively put the responsibility entirely on the intelligence community.

    “Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is one of the people who would have to personally certify each refugee — 30 per day, at least.

    ” ‘To personally certify, with respect to 30 people a day,’ Jeh said, ‘that certain requirements have been met is hugely cumbersome and I don’t think the American people will think that is the best and wisest use for the Secretary of Homeland Security to be spending his time.’ ”

    Boy… When you look at it that way, it DOES seem like the “Syrian terrorist threat fix” House Republicans put together and passed in record time (compared to say, “comprehensive immigration reform”), MAY have the unintended consequence of making the people in charge of protecting Americans from all terrorist threats sit at their desks doing paperwork all day.

    And then there’s the “Visa Waiver Program” Republicans didn’t think needed to be messed with. Except maybe this guy:

    ” ‘Were I in Europe already and I wanted to go to the United States, and I was not on a watch list or a no-fly list, the likelihood is that I would use the Visa Waiver Program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee and try to enter under false documents,’ said Senator Richard Burr, GOP chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

    “Compared to the 10,000 proposed to be admitted by the refugee program, the tens of millions of people entering the US from Europe with the Visa Waiver Program is a flood. And that’s largely by design. Ease of travel is vital to business and tourism — commerce worth billions of dollars a year to the economy.”

    http://www.wbez.org/programs/takeaway/2015-11-20/why-congress-moving-tighten-restrictions-refugees-leaves-visa-waiver

    But, apparently, since breezy ease of that kind of travel is worth billions to business, Republicans felt it would be better to clamp down on those 10,000 refugees. Better that than cause any undo inconvenience for those millions of happy-go-lucky Europeans coming and going and leaving their money behind.

    In summary, the New and Improved Republican plan for protecting the American people from terrorist attack is to:

    – chain the head of U.S. Intelligence, the Director of the FBI and the head of Homeland Security to their desks, “reviewing and certifying” Syrian (only) refugee status applications; while

    – letting millions of Europeans come and go at will, as long as they’re not on a “watch” or “no-fly” list and have (what looks like) a legitimate passport and “Visa Waiver.”

    And that, I guess, is the kind of strong and tough American Security-driven thinking and swift, decisive action that keeps people voting Republican, election after election.

    Amazing, isn’t it?

  7. Submitted by Gus Kale on 11/20/2015 - 03:26 pm.

    Rick Nolan

    Very disappointed that Rep. Rick Nolan voted with Republicans on this xenophobic bill. I know his constuents in the 8th District are not at all pleased with this knee-jerk reaction. The proper response, to oppose ISIS’s desires, would be to increase the number of Syrian refugees into this country. None of the Paris terrorists were refugees. Like our own mass shootings, their terrorists were domestic. The vetting process for refugees is already long and cumbersome. Instead of fearing these desperate refugees we should fear what such actions of intolerance and ignorance do to us as a nation.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/23/2015 - 07:57 am.

      Remember

      all those refugees from Japan and Germany that FDR let into this country?
      Me neither.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/23/2015 - 09:29 am.

        What is your point?

        This is 2015, and we are talking about admitting refugees from the Middle East. A policy mistake from 75 years ago should inform us, and prompt us to do better (and “doing better” does not mean “indulging in partisan sniping.”).

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/23/2015 - 10:32 am.

          The point is

          it’s moronic to admit refugees from nations who are at war with us, whether you believe them to be innocent civilians or not.

          Admitting refugees from Syria would be like FDR admitting refuges from Japan and Germany.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/23/2015 - 10:56 am.

            Nations

            Are you saying the US should acknowledge Daesh as a nation-state? That would be giving legitimacy to the idea that they have established a caliphate.

            Should the US have admitted the refugees on the St. Louis?

  8. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/24/2015 - 09:54 am.

    over the river and through the woods…

    It’s almost Thanksgiving again, so what are you thankful for pilgrim?

    Thankful for doors and gates; locks themselves? And securities too like trained police forces, swat teams; Homeland Security and databases that tell all…okay?

    Look outside, look through the slats in the securely-latched gate…look through the shiny new bars on the window on a snowy night…the world is wrapped in a cocoon of silence. Safe.

    “Anybody out there?” you call out but nothing; but nothing moves outside anymore…gunfire has stopped some time ago and ‘eliminations’ carefully covered as snow piles; only a trickle of red?

    “Anybody out there?” you call again…but the snow keeps falling silently covering…even the moon is slinking away…

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