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Syrian refugee battle looms large in Congress

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – From the nation’s capital to Albuquerque, the debate over admitting Syrian refugees into the U.S. after the Paris terror attacks Friday is heating up, with the House expected to vote today on Republican legislation that would halt – at least temporarily – President Barack Obama’s program for resettling as many as 10,000 of the refugees in the U.S.

The White House released a statement Wednesday saying Obama would veto the bill, which would set high hurdles for refugee admissions, including FBI background checks and individual sign-offs by top federal officials.

Most Americans want the U.S. to stop letting in Syrian refugees, according to a Bloomberg Politics National Poll released Wednesday.

Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults in the survey, conducted in the days immediately after the attacks, say the nation should not continue a program to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Just 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists, while 9 percent said they would favor a limited program to accept only Syrian Christians while excluding Muslims, a proposal Obama has dismissed as “shameful” and un-American. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Meanwhile, a number of governors, including New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, also have called for a temporary halt to resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states until they can be assured adequate systems are in place to vet them.

Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation have told the Journal they generally support allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. despite Friday’s attacks, which have been linked to the Islamic State terrorist group operating out of Syria and Iraq – where the organization has set up a self-declared Islamic “caliphate.”

Delegation Democrats also agree that anyone provided asylum must be carefully vetted. However, European media have reported a booming market in counterfeit travel documents for refugees and migrants traveling to Europe, with fake and secondhand Syrian passports reportedly easy to obtain in Turkey and Syria.

A fraudulent Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers exacerbated fears that terrorists are claiming refugee status to gain entrance to Western nations.

Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s only Republican, blasted Obama’s strategy for dealing with Islamic State and called for stringent refugee background checks. Pearce, like Martinez, stopped short of calling for a ban on admitting Syrians fleeing civil war and Islamic State terrorists.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, this week called for a “pause” in U.S. acceptance of Syrian refugees.

“Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”

More than 12 million Syrians have fled their homes during the civil war, sparking the worst global migrant crisis since World War II.

In September, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and other Democratic members of Congress wrote Obama a letter urging him to accept as many as 100,000 Syrian refugees.

This week, the representative from Albuquerque said, “Our top priority must be to protect Americans and our national security interests.”

“We have to look for every conceivable way to strengthen our screening process,” Lujan Grisham said. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, this week urged compassion toward Syrian refugees and condemned “twisted anti-immigrant logic.” But he also said Syrian refugees must be “subject to the highest levels of vetting and scrutiny.”

“Syria is a war zone, and we have a duty to ensure our own homeland security,” Heinrich said. “However, the implicit assumption that Syrian refugees – many of whom have suffered terribly at the hands of ISIS – are a threat because of their country of origin is a rejection of American values and represents giving in to our worst ethnic and religious prejudices.

“Let’s remember that the enemy in the current scenario is ISIS, not the refugees who flee from their destruction.”

Political chaos

The refugee debate is roiling Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has allowed an estimated 1 million asylum seekers into her country, has watched her poll numbers plummet as opposition to admitting Syrian refugees has intensified.

The mayors of Albuquerque and Santa Fe weighed in on the immigration controversy this week. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, said that he has “some concerns” about accepting Syrian refugees and that he isn’t confident a proper vetting process is in place to protect public safety.

“You can have a big heart and keep your people safe at the same time,” Berry told reporters Tuesday, adding that New Mexico’s largest city is an open, welcoming place. “But we have to make sure the people coming here have been vetted. I’m not comfortable today that that vetting process is in place.”

Martinez is among at least two dozen Republican governors who have expressed concerns about admitting Syrian refugees to their states – at least for now.

“The governor strongly opposes the Obama administration’s plan to accept more Syrian refugees until there is a very clear plan in place to properly vet and place the refugees, and the voices of governors and the public can be heard,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan told the Journal .

Executive Director Peter Simonson of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said he was “dismayed” by the governor’s position.

“Gov. Martinez knows full well that the United States has a rigorous and multilayered security screening program already in place for refugee resettlement that includes background checks by multiple agencies,” Simonson said. “Refugees undergo biometric tests, medical screenings, and in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials. Fearmongering against families because of their religion or national origin is unworthy of the Governor’s Office and contradicts the basic values that make us American.”

New Mexico is not expected to be a major destination for Syrians fleeing domestic unrest. Only six Syrian refugees have been relocated in New Mexico since January 2014, according to the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

Pearce said the current U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “is an utter failure.”

“For the last 15 months, the Obama administration has sought to search out and destroy ISIS, yet the group has only grown stronger and gained influence,” he said. “Not only do we need a new strategy to defeat ISIS, but we must ensure that anyone entering the United States, as a refugee, is vetted to the greatest extent possible.”

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, a Democrat, said American values compel the admittance of refugees fleeing violence in their homelands.

“The people fleeing Syria now are in some of the darkest days of their lives, running from the very terrorism we seek to fight,” he said. “Basic American values call on us not to bar the way or abandon them to their fate.”

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, urged balance in dealing with the Syrian refugee situation.

“We should carefully examine the process to ensure we’re rigorously scrutinizing potential refugees – and improve on it if necessary,” Udall said. “But blanket refusals to help innocent people, including mothers and orphans who are desperately seeking safety from ISIS violence, is a rejection of the values that our country was founded on and feeds into terrorist propaganda.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also stressed that the U.S. vetting process of Syrian refugees is thorough – and should be.

“As we as a nation affirm our long moral tradition of helping those in harm’s way, it is important to remember that refugees from Syria who are fleeing the brutality and violence of ISIL will be subjected to this strictest level of scrutiny,” Luján said.

Lujan Grisham said we “can’t waver from that resolve to protect Americans.”

“Our resolve should not be diminished by recognizing the women and children who are seeking escape from terrorism and unspeakable horrors in their own countries, including war-torn Syria,” she said. “As we partner with the international community to provide safe harbor for these families, we must do so by enhancing our national security and screening protocol for increased scrutiny for every potential refugee.”

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.


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