Response from Rep. John Carney, 11/24/15:
Thank you for taking the time to contact me about U.S. policies regarding Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I appreciate hearing from you on this serious matter.
The ongoing civil war in Syria is of great concern to both the United States and our allies. The confrontations and violence that swept through Syria beginning in 2011 have escalated tragically, with over 200,000 reported deaths since the beginning of hostilities. For four years we've seen the destruction caused by both the Assad regime and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This destruction has forced over 9 million Syrians to flee their homes since the outbreak of the civil war.
This crisis has caused the United States to re-examine its refugee policies. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced its intent to increase the number of refugees accepted into the United States. I support this goal, and believe we have a moral obligation to provide safe haven for those fleeing the violence and destruction of the ISIS terrorists. However, especially in the wake of the terrible attacks on Paris, we must also recognize our duty to ensure the safety of the American people.
On November 19, 2015, I joined 288 of my colleagues in voting for H.R. 4038, the American
SAFE Act. This legislation provides an extra level of assurance that refugees accepted into our country do not pose a threat to national security. It does this by requiring a background check of any Syrian or Iraqi refugee seeking to enter the U.S. And by requiring our intelligence community to certify that anyone we let in is not a threat to our homeland. The bill would not halt the refugee program.
The current refugee screening process is rigorous and lengthy, but this increased scrutiny gives us added protection to make sure terrorists don't slip through the cracks. I firmly believe we need to continue to welcome mothers, children, and the most vulnerable refugees in need of our assistance. This legislation continues to allow that to happen. America has always served as a beacon of hope for people all over the world, and turning away from those values would go against who we are.
Before the vote, my colleagues and I met with Administration officials regarding this legislation. I went into the meeting with an open mind, believing, as I still do, that we need to re-examine our program, but not halt it. I wanted to understand the Administration's view, and I was prepared to vote against the bill if it would halt our refugee program, rather than improve it. But the Administration couldn't provide a compelling explanation for how or why the bill would halt or delay the program, despite it being characterized that way. In light of the risks involved and the fact that this legislation still allows vulnerable refugees to enter the U.S., I decided to vote for the bill.
I listened to strong arguments on both sides of the issue from my constituents -- I can assure you this wasn't an easy decision. I'm disappointed that the debate has taken on such a blatantly political tone because it makes it harder to do what we need to do: protect Americans' safety and welcome those fleeing the violence and terror ravaging Iraq and Syria. I continue to believe it's possible to do both.
Thank you again for contacting me with your concerns on this issue. Please feel free to reach out to my office again if we can ever be of any service.
RESPONSE FROM SENATOR CHRIS COONS, 12/21/15:
Thank you for contacting me about the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me on this important issue. Allow me to explain my views on the issue of refugees entering the United States.
In recent months, hundreds of thousands of people have fled war, poverty, and insecurity in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. Most are seeking a better life in Europe, and some are trying to resettle in the United States. Approximately two-thirds of these asylum seekers are Syrian civilians, including women and children, fleeing a brutal civil war that has displaced millions and resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.
The United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees fleeing from tyranny, violence and persecution. We welcomed approximately 200,000 refugees from the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, 700,000 refugees from Cuba since 1959, and more than 700,000 refugees from Vietnam from 1975 to 1996. We have admitted only 2,000 Syrian refugees over the past four years. Compared with historic numbers, the admission of 10,000 refugees in 2016 is something we can do while still keeping our country safe.
In the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and the shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015, I understand the fear that many Americans have about one bad actor seeking to take advantage of our compassion to harm innocent Americans. It is important to note that most of those who committed the attacks in Paris held European passports, and were not part of the recent influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. With these facts in mind, I continue to support the United States’ commitment to accepting refugees from the Middle East. Refugees go through the most arduous vetting process of any category of persons seeking to enter our country. Any refugee seeking entry into the United States must undergo a series of in-depth interviews with multiple U.S. government agencies and submit themselves to biometric fingerprint testing. The entire process takes 18 to 24 months to complete.
The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act (American SAFE Act, H.R. 4038) prohibits refugees from Syria or Iraq from being admitted to the United States until the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) unanimously agree that they do not pose a security threat and provide a certification to Congress. I am opposed to this bill because I do not think it would meaningfully enhance our current 18 to 24 month long vetting process. As noted above, current refugee vetting processes are extremely thorough, and adding further restrictions to the refugee admittance process would backlog DHS and State Department vetting processes that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
I am working with my colleagues in Congress to pursue common-sense reforms that protect U.S. national security interests without tampering with our long-standing refugee program. The U.S. government’s Visa Waiver Program permits citizens of 38 different countries to travel to the United States temporarily without a visa. I am a co-sponsor of Senator Feinstein’s Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act (S. 2337), which would prevent individuals who have traveled to Iraq or Syria in the last five years from traveling to the United States through the Visa Waiver Program. The bill also requires individuals traveling through the Visa Waiver Program for the first time to provide additional biometric information for heightened security checks. Strengthening the Visa Waiver Program is a practical, bipartisan approach to ensuring that our borders are secure without abandoning our values. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate to identify ways to respond to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in a way that best protects the American people.
It is important to remember that there is a risk in not accepting refugees. If we let terrorists undermine the values that make our American democracy great, then we are giving the terrorists a victory. The overflow of refugees into the countries on Syria’s borders presents a risk to the refugees themselves, to Europe, and to the United States. Moreover, turning away refugees can create new extremists. Those fleeing death and destruction brought by war and terrorism would view any U.S. denial of refugees as validation that Americans only commit to their ideals when it is convenient for them. This kind of logic is often used by anti-American extremists seeking more recruits. We should not play into their hands and react to the Paris attacks with intolerance and fear. Instead, we need to do our part to accept those refugees who are fleeing the very same people perpetrating the attacks in Paris.
I understand your concerns about the security risks associated with accepting refugees from Syria. Our review protocols can remain stringent while still providing opportunities for those who face persecution to come to the United States. As the State Department and DHS implement protocols regarding the admittance of Syrian refugees, I will continue to use my position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to uphold our long-standing national values while ensuring that our national security remains a top priority. We can keep our country safe while accepting refugees. These two goals are not mutually exclusive.
Again, thank you for contacting me. I am honored to represent Delaware in the United States Senate and truly value hearing from Delawareans on issues of concern. My website, www.coons.senate.gov, can provide additional details about my work in the Senate, including legislation and state projects. I value your input and hope you will continue to keep me informed of the issues that matter to you.