Dems hammer ‘knee-jerk’ GOP reaction on refugees

Dems hammer ‘knee-jerk’ GOP reaction on refugees
© Greg Nash

House Democratic leaders are hammering Republicans' response to last week's terrorist attack in Paris, warning that an effort to block Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. — as GOP leaders are eyeing — is un-American and would likely meet strong Democratic opposition.

“Shutting the door of America completely to those who are seeking asylum or refuge is not our tradition,” said Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraBipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy Bottom line Overnight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all MORE (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday during a press briefing in the Capitol.  

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“We're talking about people who have to prove that if they don't get refugee relief, they may die, they may be tortured. And so I don't believe America intends to close its door to folks like that.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) vice chairman of the caucus, piled on, saying the GOP's response is a “knee-jerk” reaction “based on fear and ... politics.”

The Obama administration expanded the nation's refugee program earlier this year to accommodate some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing violence amid the country's long-running civil war. But Friday's attacks in Paris, which killed at least 129 people, have launched a new fight on Capitol Hill over the fate of the program, and many Republicans want it halted altogether.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday that the Republicans will vote this week on legislation addressing the issue. He hinted it would feature a temporary halt to the Syrian refugee program.

“Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan told reporters. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”

The Democrats suggested they could support legislation that improves the screening process for immigrants. But they were quick to note that, of the hundreds of thousands of refugees accepted since the 9/11 attacks, not one has committed a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. They warned that they won’t support a proposal that simply cuts off the route to refugee status based on specific criteria, such as religion or nationality.

In response to the Paris tragedy, a handful of GOP governors have threatened to prohibit any Syrian refugees from entering their states — a power Becerra said they don't have — and a number of Republican presidential contenders have called for an end to the program.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush added an asterisk to his post-Paris strategy: He suggested the U.S. should accept only Christian Syrians fleeing persecution. 

The plan didn't sit well with the Democrats.

“As a son of immigrants, that hurts,” Becerra said. “The idea of refugee status is you fear persecution not because you're a Jew, not because you're Christian or Muslim but because you fear for your life.”

Becerra compared the GOP's plan to the 1939 episode involving the M.S. St. Louis, a German ocean liner transporting Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazis. U.S. officials turned the boat away, sending it back across the Atlantic.

“As a result, we know that probably a fourth of those people perished in concentration camps,” Becerra said.

“The ugly part of this discussion is surfacing way too quickly.”