GOP Whiffs on Reforming Refugee Program

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

As Republicans in Congress race to complete their work on an end-of-year spending package before the holidays, any attempt to reform or curtail President Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq is being left on the legislative floor.

CQ Roll Call reports, “[a]controversial House-passed bill to restrict the resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees will likely not be included in the final 2016 spending deal while a separate House-passed measure to order changes to the popular visa waiver program will be included.”

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the House passed legislation to strengthen background checks on Syrian and Iraqi refugees seeking entry into the country. Rep. Michael McCaul, Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said U.S. intelligence had determined that ISIS was seeking to infiltrate the refugee program.

The House legislation would have required three federal officials to verify to Congress that steps were being implemented to ensure terrorists wouldn’t use the refugee program to infiltrate the U.S. Reforming the refugee and visa program has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino.

One of the perpetrators of those attacks, Tashfeen Malik, had entered the U.S. on a fiancé visa and had not been properly vetted by national security agencies. It was revealed Monday that federal agents were barred from investigating Malik’s social media posts, a number of which contained statements of allegiance to ISIS.

House Republican Leadership, in the past few days, however, has back-tracked and will no longer push changes to Obama’s refugee program or curtail the number of visas available to enter the United States. Instead, Republican leaders will fully fund Obama’s plan to resettle Syrian and Iraqi refugees with no additional security requirements.

Republicans will also fully fund Obama’s plan to issue 170,000 green cards, migrant visas, and asylum grants to individuals from Muslim countries.

“The omnibus would put the U.S. on a path to approve admission for hundreds of thousands of migrants from a broad range of countries with jihadists movements over the next 12 months, on top of all the other autopilot annual immigration,” Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter.

“In just the last year, refugees and other migrants admitted to the U.S. from Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Ghana, Kuwait and Bangladesh have been implicated in terrorist activity,” Sen. Sessions and Sen. Ted Cruz said in a joint statement.

In Congressional testimony last week, officials from the Department of Homeland Security were unable to provide Congress with the number of Syrian refugees already in the U.S. nor the number of Americans who had attempted to travel to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. DHS officials were also unable to state how many people were in the country whose visa had expired.

“You can’t give us the number of people on expired visas? You have staff? Can they just call DHS so we get it before the hearing is over?” Rep. Ron DeSantis asked. “This should not be that difficult.”

“This is not inspiring a lot of confidence and I think a lot of questions have been raised instead of answered,” DeSantis added.

While these programs and the apparent security holes within them may raise questions, they will still be fully funded as they are, according to the Republican plan. Congress is eager to pass a final spending bill for the year and leave town for the holidays. A fight with Obama over the program would risk a government shutdown, as the White House has promised to veto any spending bill that didn’t fully fund his migrant and resettlement programs.

Republicans, it seems, would rather continue the existing programs, with their flaws, then risk a political fight over government spending.

Republicans are planning to add legislation that would make very modest changes to an existing visa waiver program. Currently, citizens from 38 countries, generally European and developed countries, can enter the U.S. temporarily without a visa.

Under the Republican plan, individuals from these countries would have to obtain a visa, if they had recently traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan. It doesn’t block visas, but simply requires a visa application before entering the U.S.

The measure is so mild that it passed the House almost unanimously, with over 400 votes for approval. Legislation that makes substantive changes to the law rarely attracts near unanimous support.

The Republican modest change to visa waivers may make a good campaign ad and mask the party’s larger whiff on the critical refugee and migrant resettlement program. In the history of the world, though, campaign ads haven’t made the public safer.