House overwhelmingly votes to effectively bar Syrian and Iraqi refugees

WASHINGTON — — Tapping into heightened security fears after the Paris terror attacks, House Republicans — joined by some Democrats — overwhelmingly approved legislation Thursday that would effectively halt the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq to the United States.

But faced with a White House veto, Republican leaders in Congress are now threatening to include the restrictions in a must-pass spending bill to keep the federal government running past Dec. 11, raising the specter of another government shutdown.


The House bill would require leaders of the nation's security apparatus — the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI and the director of national intelligence — to certify that each candidate for resettlement poses no security threat.

The White House, which has proposed admitting at least 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria next year, said the House bill creates "unnecessary and impractical requirements." The administration said the current screening process is already rigorous and takes up to 24 months.


Critics say the legislation would essentially shut down the program. Prospects for passing the measure in the Senate remain uncertain.

Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said a closed-door briefing by the administration this week convinced him that refugees are carefully scrutinized before coming to the United States.

"We have the most rigorous screenings for those who enter our country as refugees than any other group of people," the Maryland Democrat said at a news conference Thursday.

Cardin said the nation has a moral responsibility to accept people fleeing conflicts abroad.


"The refugees are the victims of terrorists, they are not terrorists," he said.

The House approved the measure 289-137, with several dozen Democrats joining Republicans, crossing the threshold needed to overcome a presidential veto. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi vowed that a veto would be sustained.

Five of Maryland's seven House Democrats voted against the measure. Rep. John Delaney supported it.

Aides to the Montgomery County Democrat said the legislation would still allow the United States to accept Iraqi and Syrian refugees if they met the screening criteria.

"Regarding Syrian refugees," Delaney said in a statement, "we should not have an arbitrary cap of 10,000, we should expedite the screening of women and children, and the screening process should be of the highest standard."

The text of the bill does not distinguish between men and women, or adults and children.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, voted for the bill. He said it would help protect the nation.

"Currently, this administration does not have a coherent plan for screening these incoming immigrants in a way that ensures they are not a threat to Americans," the Baltimore County lawmaker said.

The issue has lit up the presidential campaign trail, with Republicans divided and Democrats siding with the White House.

"Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims ... that's just not who we are," said Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner.

Republicans, who say the current vetting process cannot guarantee terrorist sympathizers won't slip into the country undetected, could decide to test President Barack Obama's resolve in the weeks ahead. The political battle is taking shape as two new polls indicate a slight majority of Americans want to restrict the entry of Syrians.

Conservative groups opposed the measure, saying it did not go far enough in addressing security risks. They want to block part of the broader $500 million the State Department has requested next year for its refugee settlement program worldwide.

Top GOP senators, including presidential candidates Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, proposed tougher measures. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush opposes blocking Syrian refugees.

Cruz, the Texas senator, had suggested permitting only Christian refugees from Syria into the country, but such a condition is not part of the House bill.

Despite the robust bipartisan support in the House, the issue has split along partisan lines among the American public.

Eight in 10 Republicans disapprove of admitting more Syrian refugees, while two-thirds of Democrats agree with the White House, according to an NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll released on the eve of the vote. Independents side mostly with Republicans on the issue, according to the poll.

Senate Democrats were preparing an alternative measure to slap controls on a visa waiver program, which allows up to 20 million visitors a year from certain countries to enter the United States without biometric and in-person screening.

Some say loopholes in the waiver program pose a greater security problem than the refugee program.

"The country is uneasy and unsettled," House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said. "Our first priority is to protect the American people. We can be compassionate, but we can also be safe."

The administration is struggling to tamp down opposition to the decades-old resettlement program that has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was launched in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

But for many House Democrats under pressure to show they are tough on terrorists, the issue is "toxic" at home, according to one Democratic aide.

A morning meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough before the vote "was not going over well," according to the aide, who was granted anonymity to discuss the private session.

White House officials say the House restrictions are unnecessary. Unlike the steady stream of male migrants flowing into Europe from Syria, the State Department says, those admitted to the United States present a different demographic profile.

Half of the Syrian refugees are children and young people, according to the State Department's Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System. A quarter are men over 21.

The vast majority of those men are coming with family members rather than alone, according to the State Department.

Of the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States in recent years, the administration said, "not a single one has been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds."

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