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Congress Just Voted to Make It Really Hard for Syrian Refugees to Come to the US

Obama's vow to veto the bill sets up a possible showdown that may lead Republicans to threaten to shut down the government later this year.
Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut, Lebanon, 16 November 2015. Nuno Veiga/EPA

The House of Representatives voted Thursday to severely restrict President Barack Obama's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States. Obama's vow to veto the bill sets up a possible showdown that may lead Republicans to threaten to shut down the government later this year.  The bill passed by a vote of 289 to 137, with the support for nearly 50 Democrats.

The bill, titled ''American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015," or SAFE Act, requires that the FBI director ensure the vetting of each refugee and pass along the application to the directors of National Intelligence and Homeland Security to confirm that the refugee poses no "threat to the security of the United States."


The bill was sparked by fears that Islamic State militants are posing as Syrian refugees to assault Western countries, after one of the assailants in last week's attacks in Paris used a fake Syrian passport to enter Europe.

Related: The Paris Attacks Could Make Things Even Worse for Syrian Refugees

"We think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying the infiltrate the refugee population," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told reporters this week.

The White House has promised to veto the bill, which now heads to the Senate for a vote.

"Apparently they are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America," President Obama told reporters this week of proponents of the bill. "We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."

Obama said it currently takes two years to screen potential immigrants, a process that includes "biographic and biometric" information background checks by the FBI, Department of Defense, and the national counterterrorism center, and an in-person interview.

But House members who supported the bill insisted that Syrians need more thorough screening.

"Today the House took decisive action to show the American people we are doing all we can to protect our country," said House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul, who introduced the bill, in a press statement Thursday. "ISIS has vowed in their words to 'exploit the refugee process, to sneak operatives, to infiltrate the West."


The bill is a reaction to the fear that Islamic State militants are using the wave of migrants coming to Europe as a "trojan horse" after a fake Syrian passport was found on one of the suicide bombers who participated in the November 13 Paris attacks. French authorities say the man's fingerprints match those of a person who departed Turkey by boat and arrived with Syrian and other migrants and refugees to the Greek island of Leros on October 3. It is still unclear if he was Syrian, as his real identity and nationality are not yet known. None of the other attackers have been found to be Syrian.

Despite the possible Syria connection, France says it will continue with its plan to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees this year.

"Our country has the duty to respect this commitment," French President Francois Hollande told a conference of French mayors on Wednesday. "We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values."

Hollande received a standing ovation for the declaration.

Related: In Photos: What Happens After a Syrian Refugee Makes It to Germany

By contrast, Speaker Ryan said that, for the US, this is a moment that it is "better to be safe than to be sorry."

"We think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population," Ryan told reporters on Tuesday before the vote.


The House bill is a challenge to Obama's plan to admit 85,000 more refugees by the end of the next fiscal year, including 10,000 from Syria. The US has admitted 1,854 Syrians since 2012. Germany, a country with a population about a quarter of that of the US, has taken in almost 93,000 Syrians in the same period of time.

Senate majority leader Republican Mitch McConnell also gave his support to the House legislation imposing a moratorium on the refugee program in the name of security, saying on Tuesday that "the American people are quite concerned and upset about the possibility of terrorists coming into our country through some type of refugee program."

Opponents of the bill say the US immigration system already rigorously checks all potential immigrants, many of whom already wait a year or more for approval to come to the US. Still, Democrats are divided on the legislation, and the third-highest ranking Democratic Senator, Chuck Schumer from New York, said a "pause" in the resettlement program may be necessary.

In order to get around Obama's threatened veto, some Republicans wanted to attach the issue of refugee resettlement to a spending bill that needs to be passed by December 11 in order to keep the government open. Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican from Alabama pushed for an amendment to the spending bill that would cut all funding for refugee resettlement altogether.


In the days since the Paris attacks 31 current US governors, most of whom are Republicans, have said they would bar Syrian refugees from their states.

Other Republican politicians, including current presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, have said they would allow Christians to come to the US as refugees, but not Muslims. Ryan said the proposed law would only include a security test and not one for religion.

I'm delighted to see — Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee)November 17, 2015

Other Democratic state and city leaders have vowed to open their doors to Syrians who aren't able to settle in other states, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Despite the opposition to the bill, more than half of Americans agree with Republican lawmakers and think that the US should not continue accepting any Syrian refugees, according to a Bloomberg poll released Wednesday. Only 28 percent of Americans think that the US should proceed with resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees without imposing additional security measures.

Watch VICE News' documentary, My Escape From Syria: Europe or Die: