Bill to Block Syrian and Iraqi Refugees Stalls in the Senate

A proposed bill that would have effectively halted refugees from Iraq and Syria from arriving in the United States failed to pass the Senate today.

Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

THE PUBLIC DEBATE about accepting refugees from the Middle East rages on. But legislative action has been stalled for now, after the U.S. Senate on Wednesday defeated a bill that would have made it effectively impossible for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to find safe haven in the United States.

H.R.4038, also known as the American SAFE Act, needed 60 votes to clear the Senate, but failed to proceed after receiving only 55 votes. The bill had passed the House of Representatives last November by a vote of 289 to 137, leading to fears among many that the gratuitously anti-refugee bill might become law.

Opponents of the SAFE Act have characterized it as an attempt to manufacture an administrative backlog that would prevent Iraqi and Syrian refugees from ever being cleared to come to the United States. The text of the bill states that refugees who are nationals of Iraq or Syria “may only be admitted to the United States after the secretary of homeland security, with the unanimous concurrence of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of national intelligence, certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that the covered alien is not a threat to the security of the United States.”

As described by the bill’s sponsor, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the measure would have required those officials to personally certify to 12 different relevant congressional committees that every Iraqi or Syrian refugee who arrives in the United States is not a threat. Today it already takes on average between 18 months and two years for a refugee to be cleared, and those additional requirements would not only have raised the timeframe considerably, but would likely have prevented most approvals from ever happening.

In a conference call with several experts arranged by Human Rights First on Monday, Matthew Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that existing refugee security screening processes are the “most thorough and rigorous” means by which persons are admitted to the United States. Olsen characterized the bill as a straight-out attempt “to prohibit or restrict the efforts of refugees entering the country,” despite the neutral security-based claims of its sponsors. He said such an effort to stop refugees was both antithetical to American values and a distraction from legitimate anti-terrorist measures.

Retired Brig. Gen. Murray Sagsveen, speaking on the same call, said the bill would have a particularly deleterious impact on individuals who had worked as translators and contractors for American troops during the U.S-led occupation of Iraq, effectively “slam[ming] the door on the Iraqis and their families.”

President Obama had previously vowed to veto the resolution, but the Senate vote makes that unnecessary, at least for the time being. The near-passage of the bill is a reflection of growing negative public sentiment toward people fleeing violence in the Middle East — including those fleeing conflicts that the United States itself initiated.

Also on the Human Rights First call, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker acknowledged legitimate anxieties about security while still making the case for a welcoming refugee policy toward Iraqis and Syrians fleeing conflict. “There are things we need to do to counter a real enemy who has struck in the West,” Crocker said. “I just profoundly believe that refugees, themselves the victims of terrorism …. are not that enemy.”

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