By Nahal Toosi and Patrick Temple-West
Republican party elders and some lawmakers push to reconsider House legislation passed in haste.
Speaker Paul Ryan led his fellow House Republicans in a lightning-fast sprint to pass legislation halting the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees just days after suspected Islamic State operatives unleashed a night of terror in Paris.
But as Congress’ attention slowly turns to other pressing end-of-year business, a movement is emerging to stop the refugee crackdown, and it’s not just Democrats leading the charge.
Some Republican lawmakers are expressing concerns about the House bill, saying refugees pose less of a national security threat than foreigners who arrive by other means. They are joined by a growing number of prominent conservatives — including national security elders such as Henry Kissinger— who are speaking out against the legislation, urging lawmakers to reconsider a bill passed in haste.
The House bill adds extra layers of screening for refugee applicants from Iraq and Syria, to the point where opponents say it essentially paralyzes a program aimed at helping desperate people fleeing violence. It has been fast-tracked in the Senate, but, with the odds of the Democratic filibuster high, Republicans are considering tucking it into a must-pass omnibus spending bill likely to be voted on next week.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said Tuesday that he is not happy with the House bill in its current form.
“I’d like to see some changes to it,” Flake said. “If we look at all of our vulnerabilities out there, [the refugee program] is down the list a ways in my view, in terms of our security threats and issues. I’d rather address those things that are closer to the top.”
Flake is working with Democrats to fix security gaps in the visa waiver program, which lets in people from many countries as tourists with far less scrutiny than refugees, who typically have to wait an average of 18-24 months before being cleared to resettle in the United States. Flake said he believes others in the GOP Senate caucus, after receiving briefings, are also beginning to see refugees as less of a threat than foreign nationals arriving other ways.
Another Republican lawmaker unhappy with the legislation is Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma. He voted for the bill with serious reservations but in hopes of affecting the debate as it moved ahead. If the existing bill were to come before the House again, “I would vote against it,” Russell said. “I think it creates impossible barriers to refugees.”
For Russell, the issue is personal. One of his close friends is an American citizen who was trying to get his mother out of Syria. The mother died this past summer before she could leave the war-torn country. Out of respect for his friend’s privacy, Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, declined to offer specifics, including exactly what happened to the mother. But, he said, “I’m certain had he been able to get her to the United States she’d still be alive.”
Russell urged Republicans in the Senate to think carefully before supporting the House bill, saying they should not get refugees confused with the broader issue of immigration. He pointed out that in the past the U.S. has denied entry to people in need of help, including Jews fleeing the Nazis.
“We have had dark periods when we have done this in the past,” he said. “History never judges it kindly — never.”
The reservations being expressed come as advocacy groups step up efforts to push Congress to scrap the bill. The loosely coordinated lobbying includes organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum—from the conservative National Association of Evangelicals to the liberal MoveOn.org. Their campaigns include everything from urging their supporters to call lawmakers to encouraging refugees to speak out about their stories.
In a letter to lawmakers released Tuesday, a group of national security experts, including figures prominent in Republican circles such as former Secretary of State Kissinger, retired Gen. David Petraeus and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, urged a stop to the House bill.
“Refugees are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism,” the signatories wrote. “Categorically refusing to take them only feeds the narrative of [the Islamic State] that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the [Islamic State] caliphate is their true home.”
On the other side of the issue are groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Act for America, some of which favor much stricter limits on immigration in general, not just refugees. FAIR, for example, believes the House bill doesn’t go far enough by not putting an end to the refugee program. (Some 70 House Republicans also think the bill that passed doesn’t go far enough and want to completely defund the refugee program.)
Tyler Deaton, president of Allegiance Strategies, has been lobbying on behalf of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, with a special focus on reaching out to Republicans.
He noted that many of the lawmakers who voted in favor of the House bill were well-meaning because they were genuinely worried about national security. All of the attackers identified to have taken part in the Nov. 13 rampage in Paris were French or Belgian nationals; reports that one may have posed as a Syrian refugee have not been verified but have caused international alarm.
Still, Deaton added that few lawmakers know much about how the U.S. refugee resettlement program operates. They are not aware of the myriad safeguards in place when it comes to vetting refugees, the priority the program gives to orphans, widows and others who are especially vulnerable, or the relatively small number admitted—70,000 a year, with plans to go up to 100,000 in two years, Deaton said.
He called the House vote “a moment in time” and said he sees the pendulum swinging as more people learn about the program. “The legislative process, I think it’s going to develop some solutions that are a little more clear-eyed, a little more reasonable,” Deaton predicted.
A number of Republicans have expressed surprise when told that the House bill would hamper efforts to resettle many Iraqis who serve as interpreters for the U.S. military or who have worked for the U.S. government in other capacities.
In the past, there have been two “special immigrant visa” programs that have helped Iraqi interpreters. One stopped taking applications last year. The other has a cap of 50 people a year (Iraqis and Afghans combined) and has unusually stringent requirements. The U.S. has instead encouraged Iraqi interpreters and others with U.S. affiliations to apply through what’s known as the Direct Access Program, which is a refugee program that is currently processing tens of thousands of people and which would be curbed under the House bill.
The fate of Iraqis was a special concern raised in the letter from the national security experts, who wrote, “The United States has a moral obligation to protect them.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said he hadn’t seen the House bill, was surprised when told Iraqi interpreters could be affected. “I’ll check it out,” McCain said. “I do want the interpreters program to continue.”
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the House bill, and it’s likely that whatever does land on his desk will take a different form, even if it’s part of the omnibus. A bill that deals with visa waivers has more bipartisan support, and the White House itself has taken recent steps to tighten up that program.
Melanie Nezer, a top official with HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency with Jewish roots, said she’s hopeful that senators won’t pass the House bill as it stands. “They have had some time to learn and to think and to assess the program and I’m very hopeful that they will think twice about rushing through legislation on this,” she said.
The debate in Washington is being watched by many Syrian refugees, who also are watching their native country dissolve with no end in sight. Since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011, the U.S. has resettled fewer than 2,500 Syrian refugees. Obama has said he hopes to bring in 10,000 more next year, something the House bill would prevent. There are 4 million Syrians registered as refugees outside the country, with millions more displaced within.
In the Turkish border town of Antakya, many refugees interviewed by a visiting POLITICO reporter expressed resentment that the U.S. was not taking in more Syrians.
One of those refugees is Ayham, 29, of Damascus. He’s supporting his mother, father and younger brother who fled to Turkey in 2013. It took him nine months to find a job, but now he’s working for a European-based non-governmental organization.
Ayham, who declined to provide his surname, scorned the U.S. by comparing it to European countries, which have been taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have made the land and sea journey to that continent.
“Seriously, we are expecting much more support from the U.S.,” he said.