By Julian Hattem - 03/20/16 02:48 PM EDT
Congress is spoiling for a new fight over refugees headed to the U.S.
Months after efforts failed in the Senate to impose new obstacles for Syrian refugees, the House is speeding through legislation to lower the number of refugees coming to the U.S. and give control of the issue to Congress — not the executive branch.
But key congressional Republicans are refusing to let the matter die, indicating that the long history of bipartisan unanimity surrounding the refugee program is over.
“It has become political. That’s the reality,” said Melanie Nezer, the vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS, a refugee resettlement and advocacy organization.
“It’s become a political issue and a talking point.”
Legislation adding new hurdles for refugees from Syria and Iraq sailed through the House late last year, but ran into stern opposition from Senate Democrats. Even before it hit that point, the White House had pledged to veto the bill.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee fired the first shots in the new battle by voting along party lines to give Congress control of the refugee program, instead of leaving it with the executive branch.
The legislation, called the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act, would also set an annual cap at 60,000 refugees — lower than current numbers — implement new screening measures, and give state and local governments power to reject the refugees.
“Americans are kind and compassionate towards those in need, but we cannot allow our nation’s refugee program to be exploited by fraudsters and those wishing to do us harm,” Rep. Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteHow the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill Overnight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq Congress votes to override Obama for first time MORE (R-Va.), the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, said in a statement after the bill cleared his panel. “It’s clear that reforms are needed so that the program works in the best interest of Americans and ensures that the program is made available only to those who are being persecuted.”
The bill passed through the committee just two days after it was introduced by Goodlatte and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could not say whether or not the legislation would hit the House floor any time soon.
The nation’s attention turned quickly to the refugee program after last November’s attacks in Paris, which left 130 people dead. At least one of the attackers is believed to have some connection to the stream of refugees emerging from the Middle East, though all the killers were European nationals.
“As long as there’s that threat there, we can bring in 60,000, we can bring in 85,000, we can bring in 100,000, but if one or two of those people are going to cause great harm in the United States, is it really worth doing that?” said Chris Chmielenski, the director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, an organization that pushes for reduced immigration.
“Until Congress takes meaningful action, I think it’s going to be an issue that’s going to continue to come up until we see some of the violence around the world start to curtail and the number of refugees that are leaving these violent parts of the world drop,” he added.
In December, a Quinnipiac University Poll found that 51 percent of respondents want to block Syrian refugees from U.S. soil.
GOP presidential front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton proposes 'reserve' program for volunteers Nation's fiscal health top priority for voters, poll says Trump defends his 3 a.m. tweet storm MORE has intensified passions around the issue by claiming that Syrian refugees could be a “great Trojan horse” and “probably are ISIS,” referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Trump’s comments were a part of his broader rhetoric about migrants, which has often gone beyond the established norms of political debate.
“It’s pretty clear that the presidential race has affected the debate on immigration more broadly, but the refugee issue in particular,” David Bier, the director of immigration policy at the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, which opposed the House Judiciary Committee's bill, told The Hill.
“It used to be a very depoliticized part of our immigration system, and now it’s part of the fray.”
Obama has called for the U.S. to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, as part of a larger pool of 85,000 refugees from around the world.
But skeptics point to comments from his top national security deputies, noting the limitations of any effort to fully screen the migrants.
“In all candor, I do agree that the refugee flow coming out of Iraq and Syria represents a potential opportunity for terrorist organizations to move its members into other nations for potential attacks,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told House lawmakers this week.
Last year, FBI Director James Comey told a Senate committee that there were “certain gaps ... in the data available to us,” when screening incoming refugees.
“If someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database,” Comey added in a separate appearance on Capitol Hill, “we can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them.”
Problems screening the migrants could be one reason that the administration appears to be having trouble meeting its expressed goal of letting in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of September.
Roughly midway through the fiscal year, the government is far behind pace to meet that goal. As of Friday, only 1,141 Syria refugees had so far been admitted into the country, according to State Department figures.
The Obama administration has remained steadfast.
“It’s not a linear process,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said this week, indicating that large groups of refugees could come to the U.S. in coming months. “Each refugee is vetted individually, and yes, it takes some time.”
“We are committed to meeting the president’s goal,” Kirby added, “and we’re going to keep working at that.”