GOP Battles Syrian Refugee Threat With Vague, Redundant New Restrictions

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Pro Action in Syria Rally
A protester waves the flag of the Syrian opposition in front of the U.S. Capitol building.Photo: Tom Williams/© 2013 CQ Roll Call

In response to the news that one of the Paris terrorists might have used a fake Syrian passport to enter Greece (which can’t handle the droves of refugees washing up on its shores), Republicans have demanded tighter restrictions for Syrians being resettled in the United States (who already go through a far more elaborate process than other refugees). Members of Congress moved with stunning speed to introduce legislation intended to beef up the screening process, and the House is expected to pass the bill on Thursday.

If enacted, the legislation would suspend the admission of Syrian refugees until new policies can be put in place — though they’re a bit vague and it’s not entirely clear what they’d accomplish. According to the New York Times, most opponents of the current process have not been able to specify what’s wrong with it, so perhaps that’s not surprising.

The legislation, introduced by Representatives Michael McCaul and Richard Hudson on Tuesday, would put the FBI in charge of conducting background checks, rather than the Department of Homeland Security. As the Huffington Post explains, the current 18- to 24-month process involves DHS working with the FBI, the Department of Defense, and other national security agencies to check applicants’ information against multiple databases. The bill says officials “shall take all actions necessary” to conduct a “thorough” background check, but it’s not specific about what that means.

The other big change is that the Homeland Security secretary, the director of the FBI, and the Director of National Intelligence would be required to sign off on each refugee, vouching that they aren’t a security threat. “If they are certifying themselves — rather than some underling — that this individual does not pose a threat to national security, that’s a strong standard,” McCaul said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “They own it. It’s their responsibility.”

Obama has committed to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year, and to meet that goal, department heads would have to personally certify about 40 refugee applications a day. Presumably, their review wouldn’t be very thorough (or the U.S. would aid far fewer refugees), but as the AP notes, there’s another benefit: It would assign the top officials “political liability for anything that goes wrong.” “They’re basically asking for a guarantee from several different officials that nothing bad will ever happen and that’s a guarantee that no one can give,” complained Democratic representative Adam Smith.

On Wednesday, the White House said Obama will veto the legislation in its current form, as it “would provide no meaningful additional security for the American people, instead serving only to create significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives.”

A handful of Democrats, many of whom are up for reelection, have signaled that they may vote to halt the refugee program. As the House votes on Thursday, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican senator Jeff Flake are expected to introduce a bill that would clamp down on a more likely avenue for ISIS fighters looking to enter the U.S.: visa waivers for people who have recently traveled to Iraq and Syria. While only 2,200 Syrian refugees have made it through the screening process so far, the Washington Post reports that about 20 million foreigners enter the U.S. annually using visa waivers with no fingerprinting or background check. Several of the Paris terrorists could have used their French passports to fly to the U.S. and enter the country with a visa waiver. “That is a vulnerability far greater than 70,000 thoroughly vetted refugees,” Democratic senator Dick Durbin said.

Despite bipartisan support for the visa-waiver bill, Congress is likely to spend the next few weeks fighting over the refugee legislation before the House. While GOP leaders are reportedly against tying the measure to the spending bill that must pass by December 11 to keep the government running, several Republicans are pushing that strategy. Republican representative Mo Brooks said that when it comes to “fixing the Syrian problem,” threatening a shutdown is the “only strategy that has a chance of success.”