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US Senate Blocks Bill Restricting Syrian, Iraqi Refugees

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - Refugees and migrants walk along a beach after crossing part of the Aegean Sea on a dinghy, from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, Dec. 12, 2015.

FILE - Refugees and migrants walk along a beach after crossing part of the Aegean Sea on a dinghy, from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, Dec. 12, 2015.

Legislation restricting America’s acceptance of refugees from Syria and Iraq failed in the Senate Wednesday after passionate debate about U.S. security needs and the nation’s long history as a destination for the oppressed.

Senate Democrats banded together to block debate on a bill requiring the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence to certify that Syrian and Iraqi refugees posed no security risk before they could be approved for asylum.

“That is physically impossible,” said Democrat Richard Durbin. “Let’s call it for what it is. This is an effort to stop any – any – Syrian refugee from coming to the United States, regardless whether it’s a mother with a child.”

Backers of the legislation, which fell five votes short of the 60 required to advance, disagreed.

“This is not an anti-refugee bill,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn. “All we are asking for, and all this legislation provides for, is to enhance the screening of refugees so that this system cannot be exploited by terrorists.”

Migrants and refugees use their sleeping blankets to keep warm as they walk along snow covered fields after crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia, near the village of Miratovac, on January 18, 2016.

Migrants and refugees use their sleeping blankets to keep warm as they walk along snow covered fields after crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia, near the village of Miratovac, on January 18, 2016.

‘Serious response’ sought

The House of Representatives passed the measure late last year with bipartisan support. The vote came as the world reeled from Islamic State-inspired attacks in Paris and amid concerns that terrorists could infiltrate those fleeing horrific violence and brutality.

“The debate about how to safely admit refugees from Syria and Iraq is a serious conversation that deserves a serious response from Washington,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. “It’s difficult to effectively vet immigrants from a war-torn country where records may sometimes no longer exist at all.”

The White House said the legislation was not needed, as refugees already undergo an intensive vetting process that can take as long as two years. The White House also said the bill would tarnish America's image abroad and hand Islamic State a propaganda tool.

The Senate’s top Democrat echoed that line of reasoning.

“This bill scapegoats refugees who are fleeing war and torture instead of creating real solutions to keep Americans safe,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid.

A Syrian girl carries her dolls as refugees and migrants arrive aboard a passenger ferry at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, Jan. 13, 2016.

A Syrian girl carries her dolls as refugees and migrants arrive aboard a passenger ferry at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, Jan. 13, 2016.

Catch-all debate

At times, Senate floor debate strayed from the immediate question at hand. Republicans argued the refugee crisis might have been less severe if President Barack Obama had acted sooner and more aggressively to counter IS.

On the Democratic side, Senator Tim Kaine took the opportunity to renew his call that Congress formally authorize military action against Islamic State.

“Refugees are not our enemy. ISIL is our enemy. And yet for some strange reason, in the 18 months of war against ISIL, Congress has been unwilling to debate our real enemy,” Kaine said, referring to the Islamic State group by another acronym.

“Let’s do what Americans have always done, be willing to extend a hand to those who are victimized by atrocity in other lands, rather than extend the back of our hand and label them as enemies,” Kaine added.

Last year, the Obama administration said the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees - a tiny fraction of the numbers arriving in Germany and elsewhere.

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Nissos Rodos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, Jan. 13, 2016.

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Nissos Rodos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, Jan. 13, 2016.

Muslim immigrants

It had been widely assumed that the refugee vetting bill would fall short of the three-fifths backing required to begin Senate debate. However, in a surprise move, minority Democrats signaled they would be willing to vote to allow debate to proceed if majority Republicans allowed several Democratic amendments to be brought to the floor.

Key among them was a politically-explosive measure that would have forced Republicans to take sides on a contentious proposal by the party’s presidential frontrunner, businessman Donald Trump, to bar Muslim immigrants.

Minority Leader Reid urged a vote “to denounce Donald Trump’s reprehensible proposal to impose a religious test on admission to the United States.”

“As a front-runner for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump and his proposals are leading the public debate in our country. Republicans who support these illogical plans should be prepared for the next illogical step: voting on his vision of America,” Reid added.

Republicans rejected the proposed amendment as a counterproductive distraction.

“This whole idea of having a bunch of show votes to bring the presidential campaign here on the floor of the Senate doesn’t strike me as very constructive,” Cornyn said.

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