White House Threatens To Veto GOP Refugee Bill

Officials said the bill would hamper efforts to help "some of the most vulnerable people in the world."
President Barack Obama has said the U.S. should take in 10,000 Syrian refugees.
President Barack Obama has said the U.S. should take in 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama won't sign a House Republican bill meant to prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from coming to the U.S., administration officials announced on Wednesday.

"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, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis," the statement of administration policy reads.

A veto would be necessary "given the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis," the statement concludes.

The House is set to vote on the bill on Thursday. If it passes, the Senate will also have to approve the measure before it goes to the president's desk.

The bill's authors, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) say it would put a “pause” on the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees by adding vetting requirements to an already lengthy screening process. The "pause" isn't a formal one -- the bill doesn't actually halt admissions and allows the administration to set its own standards for the refugee vetting process.

Instead, it would pressure law enforcement, homeland security and intelligence officials to be cautious by assigning them political liability for anything that goes wrong.

The bill would require the FBI, which is already involved in screening, to conduct a background check on every Syrian and Iraqi refugee applicant and certify that each individual had passed. Next, the secretary of homeland security, the director of the FBI and the director of national intelligence would each have to sign off personally on every person admitted from the two countries. The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security would report each month to Congress on the approval and rejection numbers.

McCaul told reporters at a Wednesday briefing that his bill would create "a very strong standard" for the certification of refugees.

"What's important is that we're requiring the secretary himself, the director himself and the DNI himself to put his name on this," McCaul said. "With that comes great liability. ... They own it. It's their responsibility."

The bill is also a way for Congress to show it's acting quickly in response to last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, which the Islamic State militant group has claimed credit for. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the suicide bombers, although some experts believe it may have been part of a plot to provoke precisely the anti-refugee backlash that's happening now.

McCaul said the refugee legislation wasn't the only Syria-related bill lawmakers plan to introduce, but that they "wanted to have something done before we went home for Thanksgiving."

One reason for that: It’s what many of their constituents want. A majority of Americans -- 53 percent -- believe the Obama administration should halt its plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, according to a Bloomberg poll released on Wednesday. Twenty-eight percent said the program should continue as is, while another 11 percent said the U.S. should continue accepting Syrian refugees, but only Christians.

A number of Democrats have said the government should examine ways to strengthen the screening process, so it's not an exclusively Republican argument. Some, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have said they might support a "pause" in admitting refugees.

But for the most part, Democrats argue the process can be improved without including measures that would grind it to a halt entirely. House Democrats are planning their own legislation on refugee screening that they said will tighten the process, but allow it to continue.

“Our commitment to refugees and the security of the American people are not mutually exclusive," Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday. The lawmakers are the top Democrats on House committees that deal with intelligence, homeland security and immigration, respectively.

The debate is unlikely to conclude this week. Some Republicans want to attach measures to a must-pass omnibus spending bill that would block funding to resettle refugees. Others want to admit only Christian Syrians -- keeping out Muslims, who make up most of the Syrian population.

Obama has been outspoken in his insistence that refugee resettlement should continue.

"I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that's been coming out of here during the course of this debate," he said on Tuesday.

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