Washington – The debate over U.S. policy on Syrian refugees that has roiled the nation and Congress split the Connecticut delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday.
Reps. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, voted with nearly every House Republican for a bill, approved on a veto-proof 289-137 vote, for a bill that would tighten the screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Lawmakers and the nation’s top law enforcement official said the bill would effectively suspend the processing of those refugees.
Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, voted with the minority against the bill. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats have vowed to block it.
The bill would beef up the screening process for these refugees, which now takes up to 24 months, by requiring the FBI to conduct additional background checks.
The bill also would require the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to certify to Congress that each refugee from Iraq or Syria “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”
On the House floor on Thursday, the sponsors of the bill, and some Democratic opponents, said the rigorous new vetting would effectively halt processing of refugees until the new system is in place.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters Thursday that “to ask me to have my FBI director or other members of the administration to make personal guarantees would effectively grind the program to a halt.”
But spokesmen for Himes and Courtney said the new process could be put in place without halting the processing of refugees.
The U.S. policy of screening refugees who are fleeing Syria’s civil war, became an issue, mostly in GOP ranks, after reports one of the terrorists involved in Friday’s attacks in Paris may have entered Greece on a boat with Syrian refugees.
Himes said he is committed to “protecting innocents from violence and persecution in their home countries” but also wanted to make the United States safe.
“The American SAFE Act increases coordination between U.S. security agencies that are involved in screening Syrian and Iraqi refugees,” Himes said. “The bill simply requires that our national security leaders certify that the thorough and extensive processes that are already in place to ensure the safety of our country are being followed.”
Himes also said he did not believe the bill would “significantly increase the burden on these agencies, delay the 18-24 month wait time for refugees, or impair our ability to help those fleeing the war-torn region. “
But late Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on a Fox television interview that the bill would probably halt processing of Syrian and Iraqi refugees for much more than six months.
Even as he conceded that the process already in place to screen refugees “is already extensive,” Courtney said he voted for the bill because, “Americans want to know — and deserve to know — that their government is rigorously and thoroughly reviewing all refugee candidates to ensure no one is taking advantage of our nation’s generosity to commit violence here.”
“The heightened awareness of the threat posed by ISIL gives Congress the opportunity to build on this effective screening process already in place to address the legitimate concerns that many in eastern Connecticut, and around the country, feel today,” Courtney said in a statement. “In my view, the measure I supported today will build on that process while ensuring that our nation continues to honor our values by welcoming those fleeing the terror inflicted on innocent people by ISIL.”
In all, 47 House Democrats voted for the bill.
DeLauro said she was not surprised that so many Democrats split from President Obama and their party’s position on the issue.
“I think people are concerned and members of Congress are concerned” about terrorism, DeLauro said.
But she also called the American SAFE Act “a political ploy” perpetrated by Republicans that won’t make the nation any safer.
DeLauro backed a failed Democratic alternative, which would have reformed U.S. policies for all refugees.
“We have a tough, rigorous, process and the (Democratic bill) would have made it stronger,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday that the bill would never make it to the president’s desk, an indication Senate Democrats would deny the GOP a veto-proof majority.
Meanwhile Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., joined other senators Thursday in backing a bill that seeks to keep out terrorists but has nothing to do with refugees.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., would limit the visa waiver program that allows citizens of nearly 40 countries to enter the United States for as long as 90 days without obtaining a visa. The list includes most European countries, along with Australia, Chile, Japan and South Korea.
The legislation would bar anyone from visa-waiver countries from entering the United States without a visa if they had been to Iraq or Syria within the past five years.
The bill’s supporters pointed out that the Paris attackers were citizens of France or Belgium — visa-waiver countries.
“Instead of focusing on the 2,000 highly vetted (Syrian refugees,) we should be focusing on the lightly vetted (visa-waiver visitors),” Murphy said.
The legislation would also tighten the fingerprinting requirements for visitors to the United States who qualify for visa waivers.
“Currently, in most cases, fingerprints are checked after visitors arrive in the United States. That should be done before,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Murphy also said the bill would require the FBI to add all the people on the U.S. “no-fly” list to the database of those who are prohibited from purchasing a gun in the United States.
“It just speaks to common sense that those on the terrorist watch list can’t buy guns,” he said.
He also said the European Union should do more to share information on their watch lists with the United States.