CNN reports that as of mid-November, more than half the U.S. states have refused to take Syrian refugees. Now, Congress is listening to these states by effectively blocking the Obama Administration’s current refugee plan. This is a backlash against the terrorist attacks that happened recently in Paris. One complication, however, is that many Syrian refugees are running from violence by the same type of depraved individuals who orchestrated this attack.
Congress’ Power to Act
State governments have a limited role, if any, in the immigration policies of the United States. Various states have tried to make life more uncomfortable for certain immigrants by curtailing their ability to drive, go to school, or seek other services. However, no governor would have the power to actually keep Syrian refugees out of their state. So, while state outcry was a concern for some immigration advocates, it was a hollow threat.
Congress, on the other hand, has always regulated immigration. It seems to be listening to a constituency that increasingly feels that some Syrians pose a danger to the country, and is in the process of passing legislation to modify Obama’s plan. If the bill passed, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the FBI, and the Director of National Intelligence would have to sign off on each individual entering the U.S. under the modified plan. President Obama calls the bill “unrealistic” and the negative comments about refugees “un-American.” As the Office of Management and Budget was quoted, "this legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism.”
If this bill passes through the Senate, it will likely be vetoed by the President. The veto would likely be based not only on the bill’s contradiction with Obama’s current immigration plan, but also on the view that it’s mechanism to ensure national security is so impractical. Of course, Congress can override the veto with a 2/3 majority vote in each house.
Is this Bill Really Necessary, Given What We Know Now?
Congress may be reacting to a panic that is not based in empirical fact. While it’s now clear that terrorist groups that have held parts of Syria were involved in the attack in Paris, it is not clear whether any Syrian national was involved. As the AFP recently reported, the “Syrian passport” found at the scene of the Stade de France bombing was almost certainly a fake. In fact, several other passports with identical details have previously been intercepted by authorities around the Mediterranean. A reasonable reaction would be to make certain that refugee documents have not been falsified, rather than to bar entry to the U.S.
It is necessary to consider whether or not this policy meets the humanitarian needs of civilians who are genuinely seeking refuge from the horrors of war. At present time, there are still around 4 million Syrian refugees, including elderly individuals and families with small children, who need a place to stay. Only 10,000 Syrians were going to be admitted in the first place, and gaining refugee status in the U.S. already requires a rigorous background check and security screening process. Making innocent refugees jump through many additional hoops may deprive them of safety, security, and stability rather than increasing our own. In addition, stigmatizing refugees may play right into the terrorists’ message, that the West is intolerant of Islam and merciless.
Lastly, our Congress should look to U.S. history before making key decisions. They should all be wary of knee-jerk reactions to terrorist acts. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle now regret voting to go to war in Iraq based on incomplete information. The destabilization that has occurred in the Middle East due in part to U.S. intervention is part of the current geopolitical crisis.
As several commentators have pointed out, our country has regrettably turned away deserving refugees in the past. At the beginning of World War II, public sentiment ran against giving asylum to Jews who fled from Nazi Germany. Some said that we would not be safe from potential Nazi spies or sympathizers. Some conservatives may argue that Jewish terrorism was entirely a fiction created by Hitler while Islamic terrorism is a real threat. However, even if Islamic terrorism is a very real danger, that should not mean that all Muslims are guilty by association. As we now know through the lens of history, the decision to turn away refugees cost innocent lives.
Authored by Alexis Watts, LegalMatch Legal Writer