WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) this week to rethink his opposition to letting Syrian refugees enter the state.
In a letter sent Monday, Durbin suggested that Rauner use the holiday season to take time to meet personally with Syrian refugees already living in Illinois. “You will learn that the careless and mean-spirited rhetoric from many political leaders does not reflect the reality of their sad lives,” Durbin wrote.
Last week, Rauner announced that he would temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees into his state, pointing to the terror attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, as evidence of “the all-too-real security threats facing America.” Rauner is one of 28 governors who have said they will halt refugee admissions into their states in the wake of the Paris attacks, citing fears that a terrorist could enter the U.S. posing as a refugee.
Declarations like that, said Durbin, ignore the extensive vetting process that foreigners undergo when applying for refugee status in the U.S.
“Refugees are the most carefully vetted of all travelers to the United States, with in-person interviews and extensive biometric, biographic, and intelligence checks involving numerous agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defense,” wrote Durbin, describing a complicated screening process that typically takes between 18 and 24 months.
It’s unlikely that Durbin’s letter will change Rauner’s mind. Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have already written a letter to the governor, highlighting the rigorous vetting process for refugees. “It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees we have accepted and will accept are families, victims of torture and children,” Kerry and Johnson wrote.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas also spoke with Rauner by phone on Friday about the refugee resettlement program.
But Rauner says the federal government hasn’t given states enough specific information about who is being allowed to enter the U.S.
“As of today, the federal government refuses to provide prior notification to state officials before resettling Syrian refugees in that state and refuses to share the security background check vetting information conducted by federal intelligence agencies with that state’s law enforcement officials,” Rauner said in a statement Monday.
Since the Syrian civil war began nearly five years ago, the U.S. has admitted some 2,000 refugees from that country. President Barack Obama announced in September that the U.S. will resettle at least 10,000 Syrians within the next year.
Durbin quickly overshadowed the White House’s proposal by suggesting the U.S. take in 100,000 Syrian refugees in the same time period.
“Our shared highest priority is the safety of the people of Illinois,” Durbin wrote to Rauner on Monday. “But let’s be clear about where the greatest terrorism threat lies: not with children and families fleeing ISIS, but in glaring loopholes in the law that could allow what happened in Paris to happen somewhere in America.”
Instead of banning refugees, said Durbin, politicians should target loopholes in the U.S.’s visa waiver program that allow individuals from some countries to enter the U.S. on a short-term basis -- and even purchase guns -- with minimal screening.
All of the publicly identified suspects in the Paris attacks held European passports, Durbin noted, meaning they may have been eligible to enter the U.S. without applying for even a visa -- much less refugee status. Furthermore, current law allows foreigners who enter the U.S. through the visa waiver program to legally purchase guns in the U.S.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a law last week that would disqualify individuals who have traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years from entering the U.S. without a visa -- even if they are from a country that the U.S. considers visa-waiver eligible. Durbin offered a separate law that would prohibit all foreign visitors from buying firearms in the U.S.
Ultimately, threats from Rauner and other governors to keep Syrian refugees out of their states are unenforceable. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the authority to handle immigration issues -- including refugee admission -- rests with the federal government, not with individual states.
"It's not something a governor who cares about the law would do in great conscience,” constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe told the Los Angeles Times this week. “But I wonder how many governors really give a damn.”
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