My Vote on the Syrian Refugee Bill

Nov 20, 2015 Issues: Foreign Policy, Military and Veterans

I support America’s role in helping provide safe haven for the refugees from Syria and Iraq who are fleeing the murderous death cult we call ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh and who have been properly vetted. I would never vote for a bill that I thought stopped our refugee programs.

My wife Patti and I have been involved in refugee relief for our entire lives in public service, starting as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia in the 1960s. We were there during the 1984 Ethiopian famine, when many refugees successfully made it to Europe. We knew students and leaders jailed and sometimes massacred during the Ethiopian-Eritrean Civil War. We actively worked with the Lost Boys of Sudan, the young men orphaned by the brutal Second Sudanese Civil War, as they sought refugee status, including in Patti’s role as the Deputy Administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service at the USDA.

The bill I voted for, H.R. 4038, by my reading (and I encourage everyone reading this to read the bill too), does the following:

  1. It requires the heads of the agencies responsible for vetting refugees – the Homeland Security Secretary, the FBI Director, and the Director of National Intelligence specifically – after the existing thorough (and unchanged) background checks are conducted, to certify that refugee applicants don’t pose a threat to the United States before being granted refugee status.
  2. It requires a review and periodic reports on our refugee program to the appropriate Congressional committees.

That’s literally the entire bill. There’s no talk of pausing or rejecting refugees, no matter how many headlines say otherwise.

On the morning of the vote, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke before the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives to make his case for why the Administration opposes this bill. Frankly, he faced widespread upheaval within the Caucus for his explanation. I thought his case was entirely unconvincing.

The bill’s biggest impact is in shifting the final signoff of refugees from mid-level civil positions within our intelligence and security bureaucracy to the cabinet itself. This is similar to certifications conducted on a wide array of other federal programs, including the export of military arms to certain countries, the outsourcing of functions that can be performed by the government, and the functioning and safety of our nuclear arsenal.

Ultimately, the risk of a terrorist attack from a refugee is minimal. Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted population in America. For those wishing to come to America to do harm, the refugee program is the least likely way to get in and the most likely way to get caught. Of the millions of displaced Syrians, only around 2,200 have been admitted to the United States as refugees in the past five years, and for a good reason: applicants are vetted through biometric and biographic checks for at least 18 months with the input of every major American national security and law enforcement agency before they even set foot on American soil. Anyone whose identity and story cannot be precisely confirmed is not admitted to our country. Once they gain admission to the United States, their status is periodically reviewed by state and federal officials. Half of the American refugees displaced by ISIL and the Syrian Civil War are children and a quarter are over the age of 60.

I think the unilateral focus on refugees is misplaced. Every single attacker in Paris with a confirmed identity was a citizen of either France or Belgium – countries whose citizens don’t even require a visa to enter the United States because of our visa waiver agreement with the European Union. We must be vigilant in every respect – refugees, students, and visitors, as well as homegrown terrorists. Remember that each of us has an important role to play. If we see something, we must say something to authorities.

That vigilance is important not just for our safety but for the foundational values that define America. If history is instructive, any successful terrorist strike will amp up pressures to crack down on perceived “others”, ramp up xenophobia and bigotry, and engender support for policies that violate the constitutional rights of people in our country. Terrorist attacks here and abroad may cause us to reexamine our procedures, but we should never succumb to pressure to reexamine our values. We must not let the terrorists change who we are.

We are in a climate where a majority of governors in America have said that refugees are not welcomed, even though they have no legal authority to restrict refugees in their states. Others have said we should only accept Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq, even though the bulk of those subjugated and brutalized by ISIL are innocent Muslims. There are leaders in this country invoking the Japanese internment favorably and calling for all Muslims to be put on federal registries. Times of fear and panic are dangerous.

I saw this vote as an opportunity to assure the American public that we are thoroughly vetting refugees. In America, we know who our refugee populations are, and if bringing that knowledge up to the cabinet level in a more systemized way helps prevent overreactions that would stop future refugees altogether, so be it.

I respect those who disagree with my vote, and I share their desire for our country to remain a shining beacon on the hill.