In a landslide vote on Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would effectively put a stop to President Obama's plan to admit an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees, at least until the federal government beefs up its vetting system for the new arrivals. Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy used the occasion to connect the bill unambiguously to the deadly attack on Paris last week, saying that "the real problem is ISIL and the lack of a strategy" on the president's part.
The bill now heads to the Senate. Obama has promised to veto the measure if it passes.
Known as the Security Against Foreign Enemies Act (SAFE), the bill passed the House 289 to 137, with 242 of the ayes coming from Republicans, and 47 coming from Democrats. That's a strong enough majority to override a veto, and Obama has already promised that he would use one if the bill passes the Senate, where it heads next. Earlier this week, the president accused his Republican opponents of being "scared of 3-year-old orphans."
"We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic," Obama told reporters Wednesday, adding, "we don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."
At about two pages, the SAFE Act is relatively short. It requires the FBI to conduct a "thorough background investigation prior to admission" for refugees, in addition to the vetting system already implemented by the Department of Homeland Security. The bill would then require that the directors of DHS, the FBI, and the Office of the National Intelligence Director certify that each refugee does not pose a threat to national security.
The bill, which only applies to refugees coming from Iraq and Syria, would also require DHS to submit additional reports to Congress on the refugee program.
Only once the UN has determined that each refugee has a good reason to be afraid to go home because of fear of persecution, and the inability to seek protection from the country they're fleeing, can they begin the application process with DHS.
The Obama administration revealed a little bit about the DHS refugee review process for the first time this week, amid growing public alarm about Syrian refugees and their potential links to terrorism.
According to the Associated Press, the existing process, which also involves the State Department and various intelligence and law enforcement agencies, includes in-person interviews conducted outside of the US, and requires refugees to provide detailed information about their biographies, employment histories, relationships, and social and political activities. They also hand over email addresses and phone numbers, and biometric data, like fingerprints. According to administration officials, Syrian applicants are also subjected to screening processes, which remain classified.
According to the State Department, the existing screening process takes up to two years. That's in addition to the initial process of obtaining refugee status through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which can take up to ten months.
FBI Director James Comey has acknowledged that the vetting process has "certain gaps," although what those gaps entail remains unclear. "There is risk associated of bringing anybody in from the outside, but specifically from a conflict zone like that," Comey said at at a congressional hearing last month.
But Comey also criticized the SAFE Act Thursday, saying that it would effectively prevent the US from accepting any new Syrian refugees. And it remains unclear if the measure could pass the Senate when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break next month. Asked about the possibility of a vote Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid dismissed the idea, saying "Don't worry, it won't get passed. Next question?"
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