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E-newsletters reflect one-party conversation over Syrian refugees

Recently, the official e-newsletters issued by House and Senate members have reflected the range of opinions over whether to admit Syrian refugees to the U.S.

Presciently, the first congressperson to call for a review of U.S. refugee acceptance procedures in regards to Syria was Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) over a year ago on August 28, 2014 in an e-mail constituent communication.  Between then and September 11, 2015 when Obama announced the U.S. would accept 10,000 refugees, there have been very few such constituent communications that refer to the issue.  From September 11 to this week, a few emails are sent each day on the subject, but the Paris attacks are a turning point for an abrupt jump in the issue focus. Here is a chart of the recent frequency of these sorts of emails. 

{mosads}However, there was an explosion of interest after Obama’s announcement and again after the Paris attacks.  The recent legislative response to Syrian refugees is the American SAFE Act which requires that, in addition to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) screening, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shall take all actions necessary to ensure that each “covered alien” receives a background investigation before U.S. refugee admission. 

According to the text of the bill, A “covered alien” is any alien applying for U.S. refugee admission who: is a national or resident of Iraq or Syria; has no nationality and whose last habitual residence was in Iraq or Syria; or has been present in Iraq or Syria at any time on or after March 1, 2011.  

To learn about how members of each party were communicating their stances on Syrian refugees to constituents,  I analyzed every e-newsletter communication sent from September 11 until November 20 that included both the words “Syria” and “refugee”.  

What I found most telling about this exercise is not the partisan differences in approaching the topic, but the enormous difference in the amounts of attention paid to the issue at all.   

Republicans have sent 124 emails to constituents, a collective total of 65 pages of reasons why the U.S. ought to halt and reform U.S. policies on Syrian refugees seeking to relocate here. In contrast, Democrats have sent a mere 21 emails, a paltry 9 pages. This difference does not represent the difference in support and opposition for Syrian refugees or the American Safe Act. Instead it is indicative of a dysfunctional communications trend last observed on the Iran Nuclear deal where Democrats offer no counter narrative to constituents.  

The House vote on November 19 on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act was 239 – 137 in favor of passage, with 47 Democrats voting counter to the majority of their party to support passage and only 2 Republicans voting against the bill.  Of those who cast a vote the percentage in support of the bill is a little over 60 percent, yet 86 percent of all constituent communications are in favor of the bill and from Republican authors. 

Politics are not just about representing constituents in legislative votes, it’s also about shaping the public discourse around important issues.  In their silence, Congressional Democrats concede reasonable grounds for debate and future electoral victories by allowing the frame of the issue to be provided by Republicans. 

Cormack is an assistant professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. She maintains the DCInbox project of every official House & Senate e-newsletter at

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