Congress reconsiders bill that would slow down refugee resettlement

In this Sunday, May 29, 2016, photo, Syrian refugee sisters play near their family's tent at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A bill that would add an additional layer of background checks for Iraqi and Syrian refugees before they enter the U.S. is again under consideration by Congress. The International Rescue Committee condemned the bill, saying it “undermines” U.S. leadership on protecting refugees.

“The SAFE Act carries a sobering humanitarian cost – putting many lives at significant risk,” Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of U.S. programs for the group, said in a statement. “We urge Congress to resist all attempts to demonize asylum seekers and refugees, and focus on preserving and enhancing the protection safeguards that exist in U.S. immigration law.”

The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, or SAFE Act, was first introduced in November 2015. It would authorize the FBI to conduct an additional screening for Syrian and Iraqi refugees before they resettle in the U.S. The bill was introduced after the Islamic State attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

It takes about 18 months to resettle a refugee in the U.S. – a process that usually extends to two years for people from Syria and similar countries, according to State Department officials. Refugee groups argue that the process is already long and comprehensive. Another layer of vetting would not improve security, it would just extend the time refugees wait in limbo, officials from the groups said.

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“This bill … is a bad bill because it seeks to micromanage the process in a way that is counter productive to national security to our humanitarian obligation and the overall ability to focus on Homeland Security,” Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said shortly after the bill was introduced in 2015.

Then-FBI Director James Comey was also concerned about the bill at the time, according to CNN.

Despite the opposition, the House of Representatives passed the bill within days of its introduction. But it did not make it to the Senate, and stood no chance of becoming law under the treat of a President Barack Obama veto.

With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and a president in the White House who has already worked to blocks refugee resettlements, backers of the bill are going to try again.

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“The bill considered would provide even more authority to the administration to whittle away at existing due process protections for asylum seekers fleeing persecution and violence when they seek safety at our borders,” van de Weerd said. “It abandons persons fleeing acute natural disasters and empowers the administration to deport young people who have grown up in our communities.”

By adding an additional screening step, the SAFE Act would “effectively shut down” the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Human Rights First officials argue. Trump already reduced the number of refugees the U.S. would take in this year from 110,000 to 50,000. Public support for taking in more refugees is often low, according to Pew research. More than half of all registered voters late last year said the U.S. does not have a responsibility to take in Syrian refugees, making it an uphill battle for groups like the International Rescue Committee that are trying to stop the bill.

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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.