THE House of Representatives swiftly passed a bill on Thursday, Nov. 19, that would halt the admission of Syrian refugees into the US, suspending the program until key national security agencies can certify that they do not pose a security risk.
The vote was 289-137, with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans in favor of the bill, according to CNN. Two Republicans–Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Steve King of Iowa–joined the 135 Democrats in voting against the legislation.
The bill requires the nation’s three top security officials–the Homeland Security secretary, FBI director and national intelligence director–to certify to Congress each Syrian or Iraqi refugee is not a security threat before he or she can be admitted into the US, according to USA Today.
The House’s swift vote created a majority that could override President Barack Obama’s promised veto for his proposed program to admit 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. It also faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Minority Leader Harry Reid has said he would try to block the bill.
The high number of Democrats voting against the White House is a clear sign Obama is more isolated in his position on refugees, especially after the ISIS terrorist attacks last week in Paris.
The White House has issued a veto threat, saying the bill would create significant delays and barriers for refugees without providing meaningful additional security for Americans.
During his trip abroad this week, Obama offered a forceful defense of the program, and mocked his Republican opponents as being scared of “widows and orphans.”
“We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic,” said Obama at the APEC summit in the Philippines on Wednesday. “We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.”
Determined to move quickly, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, “This is urgent. We cannot and should not wait to act, not when our national security is at stake.”
The administration’s veto threat “baffles me, especially given the fact that his own law enforcement top officials came to Congress and testified that there are gaps in this refugee program,” he added.
“The real problem is ISIL and the lack of a strategy,” commented House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.
“We are a nation at war,” said Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who introduced the bill with Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “The streets of Paris could just as easily have been the streets of New York, Chicago, Houston, or Los Angeles…we must take decisive action to show the American people that we are doing all we can to protect them.”
Obama administration officials have been lobbying Democrats to oppose the measure, saying there is a vigorous 18-month to 24-month vetting process for eligible refugees.
“No refugee is approved for travel to the United States under the current system until the fall array of required security vetting measures have been completed,” the White House said.
“There are always risks in allowing any foreigners into the US,” said FBI Director James Comey, adding that the FBI has an “effective process with intelligence and other agencies to conduct vetting of refugees.”
Comey has told administration and government officials that the legislation bill would make it impossible to allow any refugees into the US, and could even affect the ability of travelers from nearly three dozen countries worldwide that are allowed easier travel to the US, under the visa waiver program.
“This is an area where additional scrutiny and reforms could be useful in enhancing the national security of the United States,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told Reuters.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, the largest Asian American legal and civil rights organization, released a statement expressing its disappointment in the measure.
“Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles condemns the ignorance, as well as the xenophobia and Islamaphobia, underlying today’s House vote to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States,” said Karin Wang, Vice-President of Programs and Communications for Advancing Justice-LA. “We are extremely disappointed that in this hour of great need, our elected officials in Washington choose fear over compassion and we urge the Senate and President to ensure that the United States continues to welcome those seeking refuge.”
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) in Washington DC also strongly opposed the act, blocking Syrian and Iraqi refugees from resettling in the US.
“We believe that America can be safe and secure without sacrificing our cherished values,” said NCAPA National Director Christopher Kang. “The measure of moral leadership is our response when the world is tested, not what we do in times of peace and prosperity. The United States has a noble tradition of responding to major wars and conflicts by resettling refugees from across the globe—three million refugees have been safely admitted since 1975. We must not turn our backs on them now.”
NCAPA urged the House of Representatives to oppose the legislation, proudly joining a coalition of 81 refugee and immigration law experts and humanitarians in sending a letter to members of Congress, supporting the refugee resettlement program.
Roughly 11 million Syrians, almost half the nation’s population, have fled their homes since civil war broke out in 2011, and around 4 million people have fled their country. The White House said that 2,174 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the US since Sept. 11, 2001, and “not a single one has been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds.”