Debate over accepting Syrian refugees erupted anew on Capitol Hill Tuesday, with dueling news conferences offering sharply differing views on how to keep the nation safe and sustain American values.
Republican senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz unveiled legislative proposals to place a moratorium on refugees from Syria, to allow individual U.S. states to opt out of receiving refugees from Islamic State-controlled lands, and to revoke the citizenship of any American who goes overseas to fight with IS.
“We have a commander-in-chief who refuses to acknowledge the enemy, much less confront the enemy, much less do what it takes to defeat the enemy,” said Cruz. “If President Obama is not going to lead, then it is incumbent on Republicans and Democrats in Congress to stand up.”
Less than 100 meters from the Cruz news conference, Democratic senators gathered with local Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders for a press event of their own.
“It is shocking to hear those who say ‘slam the doors on our borders,’” said the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy. “If we respond by closing our doors, all we do is give help to our enemies.”
Senator Tim Kaine decried a bill already passed by the House of Representatives to halt the acceptance of Syrian refugees: the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act. Standing in front of poignant photos of refugees, including one of a little Syrian boy whose body washed up on the Turkish coast earlier this year, Kaine sounded a tone of indignant disbelief.
“Foreign enemies? Foreign enemies? Are these foreign enemies, these refugees, these victims?” Kaine asked. “These refugees are not our enemy. They are fleeing our enemy. We have branded as enemies those who need our compassion.”
For Senator Cruz, those who defend admitting Syrian refugees are ignoring legitimate concerns made all the more urgent by terrorist attacks in Paris and California.
“The head of the FBI has told Congress that the administration cannot vet these refugees to determine whether or not they are ISIS terrorists, whether or not they are jihadists,” Cruz said. “More than 2,300 Syrians have already been admitted to the United States. And the president intends to bring in 10,000 more this (coming) year. This makes no sense.”
Cruz was joined by his home state governor, Greg Abbott of Texas, who endorsed the legislation Cruz unveiled.
“The threats to America’s security are difficult to access,” Abbott said. “ISIS’ capabilities have eluded even the president of the United States. That is why Texas and other states are doing even more to ensure that we safeguard the security of the citizens of our states.”
“America is a charitable nation. But we cannot allow charity for some to compromise the safety for all,” Abbott added.
President Obama has pledged to veto any bill halting America’s acceptance of Syrian or Iraqi refugees. Although the House measure passed with bipartisan backing, it is not clear if or when the Senate will take up the bill or any similar legislation.
At the Democratic news conference, faith leaders said singling out Syrian or Muslims is a mistake.
Washington’s Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick argued that how Congress proceeds “will either clear or smear the reputation of our nation.”
“This is an important moment in the history of our country,” McCarrick added. “In times such as these, we must be careful not to let fear cloud our judgment or sacrifice our values as a nation.”
Imam Talib Shareef of The Nation’s Mosque said, if a test exists, it is not for refugees to pass, but for America to pass.