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US House Republicans Want to Block Syrian Refugees as France Agrees to Accept 30,000

The bill would require that the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security, and National Intelligence individually ensure that each refugee poses no "threat to the security of the United States."

by Olivia Becker
Nov 19 2015, 4:25pm

Photo via Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Almost immediately after the Paris terror attacks took place last Friday, Republican began a campaign to stop or severely restrict President Barack Obama's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States. Now, they've introduced a bill to do just that, and Obama has vowed to veto the legislation. 

Republicans in the US House of Representatives plan to vote today on a bill, introduced yesterday, that would require more stringent background and security checks for Syrian and Iraqi refugees before they are allowed to immigrate to the US. 

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

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

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 discovery, 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.

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.

The House bill, introduced by Texas Republican Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, 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. 

Obama has vowed to veto the House bill. 

"The certification requirement at the core of H.R. 4038 is untenable and would provide no meaningful additional security for the American people, instead serving only to create significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives," the White House said in a statement yesterday.

In order to get around the 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.

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

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.

Despite Obama's clear 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: