The Obama administration stepped up its assurances that it can keep terrorists from mixing with incoming Syrian refugees as a top Senate Democrat voiced reservations about a resettlement program already under fire from Republicans.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who will take over as the Democratic leader in the chamber in 2017, said “a pause may be necessary” on the entry of Syrians fleeing civil war. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both Republicans, earlier called on the administration to put those plans on hold.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said the chamber plans to vote Thursday on legislation that would block Syrian refugees from entering the country unless four top U.S. law-enforcement and national security officials affirm to Congress that none of them is a security threat. The FBI director also would have to certify that background checks were completed for all refugees. The measure will be based on one offered by Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina.
"This is just a start" for legislative action on terrorism and refugees, McCarthy told reporters before a private security briefing for House members.
After revelations that one of the Islamic State extremists who staged attacks in Paris last week may have entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee, Republican officials and politicians want to halt President Barack Obama’s plan to let as many as 10,000 people displaced by the conflict there resettle in the U.S.
Schumer becomes the first Democratic leader to join Republicans in saying a pause may be needed after the Paris terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 people and stirred concerns that extremists might hide among refugees. Senators will be briefed Wednesday.
“We’re waiting for the briefing tomorrow,” Schumer said. “We’re going to look at it.”
The administration is conducting a multi-day blitz of briefings and calls with the media, lawmakers, governors and mayors from across the country who have questions about the refugee screening process. Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Amy Pope said in a blog post Tuesday that officials were examining “options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified.”
House members received a classified briefing Tuesday from administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey. Afterward, Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said "anything constructive would be welcome."
"There would be a lot of resistance within the Democratic caucus to an effort to close the door on mothers and children who are fleeing the violence around the world," such as in Hudson’s bill, Schiff said.
Representative Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, said he was disappointed in what he heard from the officials.
"I’m leaving this briefing far less comfortable than I was going in," said Salmon, who questioned the administration’s ability to make sure incoming refugees are vetted to keep potential terrorists out.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. needs to examine the role the visa process plays in security risks, as well as the use of encrypted messages for communication.
"ISIL is different" from al-Qaeda, said Feinstein, using an acronym for Islamic State. "This is big; ISIL has 30,000 fighters." The group doesn’t have to use the refugee path to enter other countries, she said, adding, "They’ve got people all throughout Europe.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, described refugees he encountered during visits to camps.
“I’ve seen destitute families that are in dire straits.” At the same time, he said, “We’re hearing reports of refugee camps having young, single, muscular males which are not your typical refugees.”
In a conference call Tuesday, administration officials said a person entering the U.S. as a refugee is subjected to a more thorough evaluation than anyone immigrating into the country, in a process that averages nearly two years in length. One official, who like the others briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said misinformation spread via the Internet was fueling unwarranted skepticism on Capitol Hill and in governor’s mansions.
Administration officials plan to meet with members of Congress over the next three days to discuss how the refugee process works. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he wants to “ensure the vetting process is as strong as possible and make it stronger if we can.”
Reid said, “I don’t think at this stage that we should be pausing until we get the facts,” referring to the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S.
The refugee issue is overlapping with debate on how to combat Islamic State.
“Containing ISIS is not enough,” Ryan said, using another acronym for the group. “Defeating ISIS is what is necessary, and we do not have that comprehensive plan in place.”
He said the U.S. should “consider everything that accomplishes the goal of defeating ISIS,” including ground troops. He said Congress doesn’t need to pass legislation authorizing the use of military force against Islamic State because a previous authorization is still in force.
Scrutiny of Syrian refugees has intensified after authorities investigating the Paris attack found a Syrian passport near the body of one assailant. French officials say the passport was fake, but that the man entered Europe via the Aegean island of Leros by using the forged document to pose as a refugee.
By Tuesday, almost a third of the nation’s governors -- all but one of them Republican -- had said they would refuse to resettle refugees or called on the Obama administration not to admit them without a review of vetting procedures. Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie are Republican presidential contenders among the 31 governors who called for some type of action on Syrian refugees.
A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said Tuesday that governors can’t block refugees from entering their states. But local governments do play a consultative role, and state governments sometimes provide benefits to those resettling in the U.S.
“We don’t have the authority” to block refugees, Kasich, who has called on Obama to stop accepting Syrian refugees, said during a foreign policy speech in Washington. “We can only express our concerns.”
In practice, governors can affect the process only by refusing to cooperate with resettlement efforts, said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
Normally, states act as a liaison with resettlement agencies that arrange housing, education, employment, government assistance or other help for refugees, she said. Toner said that states could theoretically refuse federal aid to assist with relocations.
"If they don’t get cooperation from the state bureaucracies, it just makes their job more difficult,” Newland said.
The administration’s work, however, is dependent on federal funding.
Obama has said he wants the U.S. to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The U.S. is already selective, usually considering for resettlement only refugees deemed “vulnerable,” such as widows, unaccompanied children or political enemies of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Candidates are interviewed in person at refugee camps bordering Syria and the vetting requires nearly two years on average and only around 2 percent are single males of combat age, officials said.
“Those who are calling for a complete ban first need to make sure they understand how thorough our existing vetting process is, and if we then can come to some bipartisan proposals for how to strengthen that, I’d welcome that,” Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said in an interview at the Capitol.
Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the Judiciary committee, said he was skeptical that the government could weed out potential terrorists hiding among refugees. He pointed to earlier testimony from Comey, who raised his own concerns about keeping out terrorists.
The U.S. has resettled about 2,000 Syrian refugees, a fraction of the 4 million Syrian refugees worldwide who have registered with the United Nations since 2012. Of those in the U.S., Texas has received the most, followed by California, Michigan, Illinois and Arizona, according to State Department data.
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