Activists rally to stop Congressional blockade of Syrian and Iraqi refugees

Sign at a demonstration in Hamburg Germany. (Rasande Tyskar/flickr)

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a joint call on Tuesday for what they deemed a “pause” in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

“This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry, so we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population,” said Ryan.

With the U.S. Congress poised to vote on a “pause” of the refugee resettlement program, human rights groups, activists and aid agencies are making a push for supporters to voice their support for Syrian refugees to their leaders. A petition by MoveOn and information on how to call representatives by Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee are examples of the collective effort to defeat the vote. They are desperately scrambling to garner opposition for a proposed law banning Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

“Calls for a ‘pause’ or ‘temporary freeze’ of the refugee resettlement process may sound innocuous, but a pause would only prolong the suffering of Syrian refugees who have fled unspeakable brutality,” said Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, in a statement. “While it’s deeply unlikely that this effort will actually make Americans any safer, what is certain is that it would effectively bring our successful longstanding bipartisan resettlement program to a halt, denying the most vulnerable Syrians a refuge in the hour of need.”

A bill addressing the resettlement program will likely come up for a vote on Thursday. It comes in the wake of the Islamic State terror attack in Paris. Governors from more than two dozen states also declared that they will not accept Syrian refugees and urged for the White House to stop the program for the time being.

The proposed bill by Republican Congressmen Mike McCaul and Richard Hudson would place even more thorough vetting procedures for taking in refugees and would ban Syrians and Iraqis from gaining entry entirely. Named the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, it is framed as a way to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S.

“I sent a letter to President Obama on Monday calling for a temporary suspension of Syrian refugee admissions until a full review of the resettlement program, including vetting security risks, could be completed,” says a statement from McCaul. “It is apparent that the president will ignore these concerns, making this legislation necessary to toughen security measures in order to keep terrorists from infiltrating America disguised as refugees. We cannot afford to play Russian roulette with our national security.”

Obama has made clear that he supports the plan to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. The process for gaining admittance is already long and difficult. Refugees registered by the U.N. must undergo an 18- to 24-month-long vetting process before being resettled in the U.S. It is exceedingly thorough in order to prevent terrorists from gaining entry.

Opposition to Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. gained momentum following the discovery of a refugee’s passport near the body of one of the Paris attackers. It has fueled concerns that Syrian refugees pose a threat despite no evidence that the person traveled with migrants and refugees to Europe and new reports showing the passport is commonly sold for people seeking a fake identity. Not settling the refugees who are fleeing terrorism and war does more harm than good, say groups.

“The Syrian crisis is a conflict that has been brutal in the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Banning the most vulnerable Syrian refugees from resettlement is risking innocent lives,” reads the International Rescue Committee’s petition website. “And it will not make America safer. On the contrary, when our own leaders feed into ISIS’s own propagandist narrative of Muslim vs. non-Muslim, it makes us all less safe.”

Other active campaigners include Catholic Relief Services, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, InterAction, Human Rights First and the Refugee Council. They are taking to social media and leveraging their supporters to reach U.S. leaders in opposition to the legislation.

Early indications show that tomorrow’s vote may be split between political parties. But some elected officials may cross party lines. The governors who came out in opposition to refugee resettlement in the past few days have mostly been Republican, but Democrat governors from states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire declared bans. A similar bill would have to pass the Senate and be signed by the president to make it into law – an unlikely possibility. For Obama, the choice is clear.

“We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves — that’s what they’re fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both,” he said in a news conference.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.