Republicans are putting President Barack Obama and his party on the defensive over accepting Syrian refugees, following reports that one of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks entered Europe as part of the wave of Syrians fleeing civil war.
GOP governors and lawmakers were quick to announce they wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into their states and are appealing for stronger control of U.S. borders. The issue opens up a firm political line of attack for Republican presidential candidates who had been struggling to find their footing on the national security challenges posed by the Paris slaughter.
The rhetoric on the right clearly angered Obama, who argued at a press conference Monday that the United States must remain committed to its values of tolerance and accepting immigrants.
“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism,” Obama said in Antalya, Turkey, at a meeting of the G20. “It is very important … that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”
Republicans, however, are stressing the security concerns posed by the potential influx of people from the war-torn country. They have called on congressional leaders to block the Obama administration from proceeding with plans to resettle thousands of refugees, with some asking House Speaker Paul Ryan to lead the effort.
In a letter to Ryan, Ben Carson — the retired neurosurgeon and a Republican front-runner — called for Congress to block funding for any programs “that seek to resettle refugees and/or migrants from Syria into the United States, effective immediately.”
“Until we can sort out the bad guys we must not be foolish,” Carson said in a news conference in Nevada.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee similarly heaped pressure on Ryan, saying in a statement: “Speaker Ryan needs to make it clear that if the President won’t stand to protect America from wholesale open borders, then Republicans will.”
“If Ryan will not lead and reject the importation of those fleeing the Middle East without assurances that we can separate refugees from terrorists, then Speaker Ryan needs to step down today and let someone else lead,” Huckabee said.
In addition, Govs. John Kasich and Bobby Jindal of Ohio and Louisiana, respectively, said they would work to keep refugees out of their states.
And Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 contender, introduced legislation that would block the United States from issuing visas to refugees from countries with a high risk of terrorism in an effort to “stop terrorists from walking in our front door.”
Paul Ryan’s strategy on Syrian refugees
Ryan said Monday he has asked the Obama administration to provide a classified briefing for all House members on the situation in Paris. On Tuesday FBI Director James Comey and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson will deliver a classified briefing to lawmakers, at 5:30 p.m. in the Capitol Visitors Center auditorium. Senators will be briefed on Wednesday.
An aide to the GOP leader said it’s not clear when that will take place but it doesn’t appear it will be Monday.
In a radio interview with Bill Bennett, Ryan also said he has tasked all committees of jurisdiction to come up with recommendations about how to ensure the thousands of Syrian refugees the President wants to settle in the United States won’t be involved in terrorism. Ryan said he was particularly concerned since at least one of the attackers in Paris is believed to have been part of the waves of refugees into Europe from Syria.
“Look, we’ve always been a generous nation taking in refugees. But this is a unique situation. This is a situation where you have single men coming over, which is not women and children,” Ryan said.
Ryan said House leaders are considering adding language opposing the refugees to the large government funding bill that must pass by December 11.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re protecting ourselves,” Ryan said. “So that’s what we’re looking at: What is the best option? Not just so we have an issue to talk about, but so we have a result, which is to make sure we are not complicit or even facilitating of having someone come in who would seek to do us harm from Syria.”
Senate GOP leaders are also looking at the question, but no decisions have been made, according to one leadership aide. Classified briefings are also in the works for senators but have not been finalized.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made a similar case in South Carolina, saying that “anyone with an ounce of common sense would say ‘no, we shouldn’t be bringing in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.'”
“Instead,” Cruz said, “we should be resettling them humanely in Middle Eastern countries that are majority Muslim. We can help them deal with their refugee status, but the first obligation of the President needs to be as commander in chief to protect the safety of the United States of America.”
As he introduced his legislation, Paul said he wants enhanced screening measures for refugees.
“The Boston Marathon bombers were refugees, and numerous refugees from Iraq, including some living in my hometown, have attempted to commit terrorist attacks. The terrorist attacks in Paris underscore this concern that I have been working to address for the past several years,” he said.
Obama responds from Turkey
Obama pushed back against the Republican presidential field Monday and seemed to take particular exception to the sentiments of Cruz — though not by name.
“When I hear folks say that maybe we should just admit the Christians and not the Muslims (refugees), when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted — when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution — that’s shameful. That’s not American,” Obama said, whose plans currently call for 10,000 Syrians to be admitted over the coming year.
Both Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s parents fled Cuba, though only Cruz has mentioned a religious test. Rubio told ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” this weekend that the U.S. shouldn’t accept any refugees from Syria. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the United States should focus on assisting Christians in Syria.
The United States has accepted 2,178 Syrian refugees since the civil war began there in March 2011 — and that number is expected to grow dramatically in the current fiscal year.
The refugees have been admitted to 138 cities and towns in a total of 36 states — with California, Texas, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois taking the most, according to wrapsnet.org, where the U.S. government keeps its official numbers.
Louisiana has seen 14 Syrian refugees located there. Ohio has 76 relocated Syrians, while New Jersey, led by 2016 GOP contender Chris Christie, has 88.
The 14 states that have admitted no refugees are Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.
Administration sticking with plans
The Obama administration wasn’t backing off its plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday the government is “steadfastly committed” to that plan.
He said federal officials are taking “seriously” the states’ concerns, and that he’s not sure whether they have the legal authority to block the resettlements.
One Democratic presidential contender — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — backed Obama’s plans.
“Scapegoating an entire religious community and rejecting those fleeing ISIL’s terrorism and persecution is what the terrorists want,” O’Malley said in a statement.
“We need to step up and act like Americans, in accordance with our principles,” he said. “There are women and children dying and fleeing the same sort of carnage that was unleashed on the people of France. This is a time for American leadership, not a time for us to cower.”
Two top-ranking Democratic senators backed Obama, too.
Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States has a more stringent vetting process for refugees.
“All the refugees that come to America come from the United Nations refugees’ centers and have been gone through by multiple agencies in the United States on background and vetting. It’s a totally different circumstance,” he said.
And Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said that “we can’t stop the idea that we can expect the world to take refugees and we can walk away from it. We should do all of our vetting to make sure and that is why the flow is going to be very slow.”
Congress could block funding for refugees
Several influential Republican House and Senate leaders are pushing, too, to block Syrian refugee resettlement.
Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican and influential chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the refugee program “should be suspended until the American people are satisfied that they know exactly who the president is admitting into the country via this program.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, offered several specific proposals in a letter to top-ranking Senate budget writers, saying that Congress should “require, as a condition for any funding for refugee resettlement for Syrian refugees, a comprehensive plan on how security will be achieved,” included prior vetting by U.S. intelligence officials.
Grassley continued: “Not one dollar should be expended until stringent parameters for vetting these refugees are established.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, took a more direct shot at Obama in previewing a Thursday subcommittee hearing on the Syrian refugee crisis.
“When will President Obama take ISIS threats seriously, as well as the warnings of national security officials within his own administration, and cease his plan to bring thousands of Syrian refugees into the United States?” Goodlatte said in a statement. “His disconnectedness to reality is needlessly jeopardizing national security and Americans’ lives.”
Governors move to keep refugees out
Jindal has already signed a state executive order barring the resettlement of Syrian refugees there.
He ordered the state’s government to use “all lawful means” to block those refugees from entering Louisiana and authorized the state police to monitor any who are already there.
Jindal’s executive order says that “it is foreseeable that the introduction of Syrian refugees into the United States without proper prior screening and follow-up monitoring could result in a threat to the citizens and property of this state.”
GOP governors who aren’t involved in the presidential race are moving to bar Syrian refugees from their states, too.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that “Texas will not accept any Syrian refugees & I demand the U.S. act similarly. Security comes first.” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted that he “will oppose Syrian refugees being relocated to Arkansas.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence similarly ordered his state to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees, “pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved.”
The Republican governors of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin similarly moved to stop Syrian refugees from coming into their states.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad hasn’t attempted to stop accepting Syrian refugees, but a spokesman said that “the governor is requesting that the federal government, who has the authority under the Constitution to decide these matters, be open and transparent with any refugee resettlements.”
Democratic governors in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont said they’d continue accepting Syrian refugees, too.
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan is the only Democrat to oppose Syrian refugees’ resettlement in the United States — a stance that’s particularly notable since she is challenging Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. A spokesman said Hassan “believes that the federal government should halt acceptance of refugees from Syria.”