Legislative Update: 11/24/2015
House Passes Bill that Fails to Address Obama’s Refugee Resettlement Program
In response to the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, the House saw a flurry of activity in the beginning of last week with multiple bills introduced to block the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the United States. House GOP Leadership settled on bringing Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul’s (R-TX) bill, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, for a floor vote last Thursday. McCaul’s bill, H.R. 4038, requires the approval of top national security officials before the administration can resettle refugees from Syria and Iraq. (See FAIR’s Summary of H.R. 4038) In an interview before the vote, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that we must “have higher standards placed upon [the refugee program] so that we can verify on a person-by-person basis, each and every single refugee, whether or not they pose any security risk.”
However, the American SAFE Act is a flawed bill that fails to completely stop or defund the current refugee resettlement program and cedes all responsibility to an already untrustworthy administration to verify whether any refugees present a national security risk. It also maintains the false assumption that it is possible to properly vet refugees from Islamic extremist hotbeds, provided new processes are quickly put in place. This ignores the grim realities of the situation on the ground as well as susceptibility to radicalization once refugees arrive. Despite the bill’s shortcomings, President Obama threatened to veto the House bill ahead of the vote, saying that its verification requirement would create “significant delays and obstacles” for the existing refugee vetting program.
In an attempt to improve the bill, a group of House Republicans led by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) introduced an amendment that would have placed a six-month moratorium on refugee resettlement. (Breitbart, Nov. 18, 2015) The amendment also would have required a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study within 90 days to assess the economic impact of refugees on state and local governments. (Id.) However, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) announced that the bill would be voted on under a closed rule, effectively blocking all amendments — including Rep. Babin’s — from being offered to the bill. (Id.) While Speaker Ryan claims that H.R. 4038 “pauses” refugee resettlement, it would not actually do so without adoption of the Babin amendment. The bill subsequently passed in its original form with a 289-173 vote — a majority sufficient enough to override an Obama veto. (Roll Call Vote #643) The Senate is out this week for the Thanksgiving recess so the earliest the upper chamber could vote on it is next week. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has already threatened that Senate Democrats will filibuster the bill. (Breitbart, Nov. 20, 2015)
In light of the recent discovery that two of the three Paris suicide bombers posed as Syrian refugees, it is clear that Congress erred by passing a bill that fails to address the underlying problems. (See NY Daily News, Nov. 21, 2015) The next opportunity for the House to truly stop Obama’s refugee resettlement program will be as part of the omnibus spending bill that must be passed in early December to keep the government funded. FAIR is supporting an effort by Rep. Babin to include specific reforms, security measures, and oversight requirements for the refugee resettlement program in the omnibus spending bill.
Stay tuned to FAIR as details unfold…
Obama Administration Doubles Down on the Security of the Syrian Refugee Process
Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee last week for several hearings, Obama administration officials doubled down on defending the President’s Syrian refugee resettlement plan. In doing so, these officials directly contradict FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the committee last month that the U.S. cannot properly vet Syrian refugee applicants for terrorist and national security threats. (See Daily Caller, Oct. 21, 2015) During a Department of Justice oversight hearing last Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said repeatedly that the refugee program’s screening processes were “robust.” (House Judiciary Committee, Nov. 17, 2015) Then, on Thursday, during a hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, both Leon Rodriguez, the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Anne Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, also vouched for the program. (House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Nov. 19, 2015)
Several Republicans on the Judiciary Committee pressed Attorney General Lynch on Comey’s testimony that the disarray in Syria prevents meaningful background checks on the refugees. (House Judiciary Committee, Nov. 17, 2015) For instance, after Lynch said that Comey had claimed “there is a process in place that allows for significant vetting of refugees from all countries,” Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) pointed out that the FBI Director had in fact testified to the opposite regarding Syria. (Id.) Goodlatte quoted Comey as admitting that the FBI can query the database “until the cows come home,” but “nothing will show up because we have no record” on the person. (Id.) Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID) also told Lynch that Comey had explained that the U.S. has a “dramatically” less “robust” data set than it had in Iraq. (Id.)
In response to these concerns, Lynch simply said that there was a “robust interview process” and that she and the FBI Director would “do everything in our power.” (Id.) Though she admitted that the situation presented “challenges,” she was evasive about whether the databases were actually “sufficient” in her own view. (Id.)
On Thursday, USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez and Anne Richard from the State Department made stronger assertions defending the Syrian refugee program. (House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Nov. 19, 2015) Like Lynch, they insisted that the screening process for Syrian refugees was “tough” and “robust.” (Id.) However, rather than admitting to challenges with the program as Lynch did, they asserted that the Syrian refugee program screening was quite sufficient. (Id.) In fact, they claimed that Syrian refugees were screened much more thoroughly than any other travelers to the United States. (Id.) Richard also said that Syrians are “less of a threat” than other refugees, because “they’ve fled their country” and “voted with their feet.” (Id.) She said that “it’s also normal for us with most refugees not to have data,” with Iraq and Afghanistan being an exception. (Id.)
Neither Rodriguez nor Richard explained how the presence of worse gaps in screening for other travel into the U.S., particularly in the screening of other refugee programs, should be of much comfort to Americans worried about the Syrian refugee program.
Polls: Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose President Obama’s Syrian Refugee Resettlement Plan
President Obama remains committed to his Syrian refugee resettlement program despite overwhelming opposition from the American people. In several recent polls, strong majorities of U.S. citizens said they disapprove of the President’s plan to start admitting at least 10,000 Syrian refugees per year.
The most recent Washington Post/ABC news poll found that the American people do not believe the Obama administration can adequately vet Syrian refugees for terrorist ties. By a 54%-43% margin, respondents oppose taking in Syrian refugees even “after screen them for security.” (Washington Post/ABC News Poll, Nov. 20, 2015) Similarly, 52% are not confident the U.S. can “identify and keep out possible terrorists who may be among these refugees.” (Id.) Although 47% say they are confident the U.S. can identify terrorist, only 13% are “very” confident while 34% are only “somewhat” confident. (Id.)
According to a Bloomberg Politics poll, 53% of Americans said the best approach to the conflict in Syria is to “not accept any Syrian refugees into the U.S.” (Bloomberg Politics Poll, Nov. 18, 2015) By comparison, only 28% support the President’s plan to “resettle 10,000 refugees without religious screening.” (Id.) Additionally, 11% of Americans only want the U.S. to resettle Syrian Christians while 8% were not sure what the U.S. should do. (Id.) The Bloomberg Politics poll of 628 U.S. adults was conducted November 16-17, just days after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. (Id.)
The NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll found that 56% of Americans disapprove of the President’s plan to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the country while only 41% approve of the plan. (NBC News/SurveyMonkey Poll, Nov. 18, 2015) This poll also broke down support by political affiliation. Eighty-one percent of Republicans disapprove of the President’s plan compared to only 17% who support it while 59% of independents oppose compared to 40% who approve. (Id.) On the other hand, 65% of Democrats support President Obama’s plan while 31% oppose. (Id.) The NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll of 5,755 U.S. adults was conducted November 15-17. (Id.)
Unsurprisingly, President Obama’s approval rating is taking a hit as he continues to disregard the will of the American people. In the NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, the president’s approval rating is 43%—down 3% from October and the lowest level recorded in this survey in 2015. (Id.) Similarly, the Bloomberg Politics poll pegs Obama’s disapproval rating at 51%, a 4% increase since September. (Bloomberg Politics Poll, Nov. 18, 2015)
More than Half of Nation’s Governors Oppose Resettlement of Syrian Refugees in U.S.
More than half of the nation’s governors spoke up this week to oppose President Obama’s plans to resettle refugees from Syria, following the brutal attacks in Paris, France, and Beirut, Lebanon, that left hundreds dead and wounded. (CNN, Nov. 16, 2015) States play an important role in influencing refugee resettlement in the United States. While only the federal government may decide who can enter the United States as a refugee, generally, federal law requires cooperation between federal, state, and local governments when it comes to the resettlement of refugees admitted to the United States. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1522(a)(2)(A)) (See FAIR’s Guide on the Role of the States in the Refugee Resettlement Process, Nov. 2015)
Intelligence services have warned there are significant vulnerabilities in the refugee vetting process. Specifically, that the infrastructure and internal systems by which the U.S. government can adequately verify data and conduct background checks simply does not exist in Syria. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security last month, explaining, “We can only query against that which we have collected. And so 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, we can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them.” (Daily Caller, Oct. 21, 2015) Similarly, Michael Steinbach, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security earlier this year. Steinbach stated, “The concern in Syria is that we don’t have systems in place on the ground to collect information to vet…. You’re talking about a country that is a failed state, that does not have any infrastructure, so to speak. So all of the dataset, the police, the intel services that normally you would go to seek information doesn’t exist.”
Despite vast opposition by state and local leaders and warnings from intelligence sources, President Obama has reiterated his commitment to admit at least an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria in 2016.
FAIR Introduces New Executive Amnesty Resources
Last Friday marked the one year anniversary of President Obama’s decision to implement a great deal of his amnesty agenda through executive action. During the past year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been gradually implementing the executive actions, going further than ever before in rewriting immigration law. The courts have blocked the executive actions that drew the most attention, the DAPA and extended DACA programs. However, the Obama administration has proceeded with most of the others, both through policy memo and through regulation. To mark the anniversary, FAIR has released a report summarizing the status of the executive actions, as well as a resource page on the court case challenging them.