National Security

GOP in quagmire over refugees

Getty Images

A political fight over the refugee crisis in Europe is spreading to the United States, and is beginning to divide Republicans in Congress.

On the one hand, multiple Republicans characterized the White House’s announcement the U.S. would allow an additional 10,000 refugees into the U.S. next year as meager and belated.

{mosads}Yet others have been more hostile to the thought of letting thousands of foreigners into the country, especially given possible risks of extremists slipping through the cracks.

The divide has spilled over to the Republican presidential primary.

Noted hawks such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have suggested they are open to allowing more refugees into the United States, though Rubio told a Boston radio station that the United States has to be able to ensure they aren’t part of a terrorist organization. 

But others, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and GOP front-runner Donald Trump, have opposed the notion that the U.S. should do more.

The opposing positions are likely to continue dividing Republicans, who are torn between heartbreaking images of refugees fleeing violence and the prospect of opening the country up to immigrants with potentially murky backgrounds.

The refugee crisis was buried during the August recess, and beneath talks about the Iran nuclear deal and budget fights now that lawmakers have returned, but is likely to take center stage in coming weeks.

“There’s been, up until today, a moribund reaction to this catastrophic exodus of people,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the bicameral Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

At the end of this month, that commission will hold a hearing to explore the refugee crisis in Europe and the U.S.’s role, Smith told The Hill.

“This is good. I’m not sure 10 or eight or 15 [thousand] is the right number because it could be arbitrary,” he added. “That’s what we have to get to the bottom of.”

In addition to Smith’s bicameral commission, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings on the subject in coming days.

“It’s a serious issue,” committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “It’s been brewing for a long time, and it’s a result of a lack of any kind of a Middle Eastern policy, and I want to look at it in a real pragmatic way.”

The issue is likely to come up at next week’s second Republican presidential debate. Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, built his candidacy largely on railing against the weak U.S. border, and he quickly raised skepticism about the U.S. taking on refugees.

He told Fox News’s “Hannity” that while he would “love to help … we have our own problems.”

And on Capitol Hill, there are already some lawmakers raising doubts about the wisdom of acting quickly to take on refugees.

“The administration is moving forward full speed ahead without the necessary security backbone in place,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said in a statement. “We do not want another Boston Marathon Bombing.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be looking at broader policy for the region, Corker noted, though he said the refugee crisis will “be a central part of every hearing. At least a very important part.”

If Congress wades in further, it’s not entirely clear what options it would have.

The decision on how many refugees to allow into the country is an administrative one made by the Obama administration without the input from Congress.

Most likely, lawmakers would be able to wield leverage through the funding process, by tying money to the State Department to new demands on policy for the refugees. 

Some lawmakers have suggested that they may need to consider an emergency spending bill with extra funding to vet and support refugees, either through the State Department or other international programs.

So far, the U.S. has accepted approximately 1,500 of the roughly 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country since the start of the civil war in 2011. Germany has pledged to take in about 800,000.

The U.S. is the largest single donor to the Syrian crisis, having provided more than $4 billion in aide.

One major concern for opponents of resettling refugees in the U.S. is the prospect that adherents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or other extremist groups, will try to hide within their ranks. 

“I don’t obviously put it past the likes of [ISIS] to infiltrate operatives within these refugees, so that is a huge concern of ours,” James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, said at a conference in Washington on Wednesday. 

“We do have a pretty aggressive program for those coming to this country for screening their backgrounds,” he added. “I’m not as uniformly confident about each European country that is going to be facing welcoming and allowing refugees into their country.”

Others worry about the economic impact.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — who is among the more conservative lawmakers on immigration issues and has spoken to Trump on the issue — blasted out a chart to reporters this week suggesting that more than 90 percent of recent refugees from the Middle East are on food stamps. 

Sessions said, separately, that the United States has done “more than its fair share for decades,” insisting instead that countries in the region should accept more refugees. 

“Our guiding principle should be to help assist in the placement of refugees as close to their homes as possible, and to take such action as we are able to aid their return home in a stable situation,” he added. “This strategy will not only reduce the numbers making dangerous treks, but will create more impetus for political reforms in the region.”

With the refugees’ ranks growing, political pressures are only likely to intensify.

The path forward, however, remains as uncertain as ever.

“This refugee crisis in Europe is serious. It needs to be dealt with,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters on Wednesday. “How we deal with it and what our role is in trying to help resolve it, frankly, is unclear to me at this moment.”

— Mike Lillis contributed


Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Jeb Bush Jeff Sessions John Boehner Refugee crisis

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video