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

Minnesota’s delegation echoed the national divide, with Republicans critical of Obama’s plan to settle more Syrians while some Democrats defended the current refugee screening process.

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

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”