House Moves Toward Tougher Vetting of Refugees

House Moves Toward Tougher Vetting of Refugees
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House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Tuesday morning that Republicans have created a new task force to draft legislation in response to the Paris terrorist attacks, and action on creating a new process to background-check Syrian and Iraqi refugees coming to the United States will be considered in the House later this week.

The task force, led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and including the chairmen of six key committees –Armed Services, Appropriations, Intelligence, Homeland Security, Foreign Affairs and Judiciary – began meeting this past weekend, immediately following Friday night’s deadly attacks in Paris. The task force met Tuesday afternoon to hammer out initial steps in dealing with the question of refugees amid concerns over terrorists exploiting the resettlement process to enter the country.

The task force’s plan, expected to see a vote Thursday on the House floor, will include a new vetting process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees that requires the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the FBI director and director of national intelligence, to certify that each individual refugee is not a security threat, and to report to Congress monthly.

“It’s clear that this was an act of war and the world needs American leadership,” Ryan said in a press conference Tuesday morning. He asserted that the refugee crisis requires a “pause and a more comprehensive assessment on how to better guarantee that members of ISIS are not infiltrating themselves among the refugee population."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed Ryan’s call for a “pause or moratorium” on the refugee resettlement, saying that the ability to vet refugees from the Middle East is “quite limited … so that's why I for one don't feel particularly comforted by the assertion that our government can vet these refugees.” McConnell said he and Ryan talked about the refugee problem on Monday and that the two were in talks with the White House on the issue.

In September, President Obama called for admitting up to 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. as a flood of migrants fled the war-torn country. In response to the Paris attacks, however, Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress have urged a halt to that process, citing concerns that vetting and background checks are insufficient to ensure that no ISIS members come to the U.S. in the resettlement wave. Obama criticized those reactions as “shameful.”

Ryan didn’t call for completely stopping the refugee program, but did say it is paramount to proceed with caution.

“Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan said. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry, so we think the prudent, the responsible thing is take a pause in this particular aspect of the refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population."

McCarthy said his task force is designed to come up with short-, medium- and long-term solutions to both the refugee question and broader concerns about the administration’s strategy to fight ISIS.

The House plan proposed by the task force is based generally on a bill written by North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson. In addition to requiring DHS to conduct a thorough background check of each refugee in conjunction with the director of national intelligence and the FBI director, it requires the inspector general of DHS to review all certifications and provide an annual report to Congress.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee and a member of the task force, said the plan wouldn’t necessarily require a “pause” in refugee resettlement except in the sense that there would have to be time to put the new certification process in place. He added that the Judiciary Committee is working on a longer-term fix to the refugee program. The group of committee leaders and McCarthy will continue to meet going forward.

“We don’t actually define how the certification process would have to work,” Nunes told reporters, clarifying that the process for conducting the background checks would be left up to the agencies. “We just talk about who has to certify it.”

Nunes was hopeful, but not confident, that Democrats would be on board with their plan.

“It would be helpful if [Democrats] get behind this. I’m not going to hold my breath but I think it’s something they should be able to get behind,” Nunes told reporters.

There are some indications that Democrats might approve of something similar to what the GOP lawmakers propose. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that lawmakers “need to continue to ensure that the vetting process is as strong as possible, and make it stronger if we can.” He said he had discussions with the White House that indicated the administration is willing to look at changes. The Senate will have a briefing on the Paris attacks from administration officials Wednesday evening, while the House was briefed on Tuesday.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said that he needs to see details of a Republican plan, but added, “If this is a question about adequate vetting for all refugees coming into the United States, I’m for it."

In addition to possibly halting or changing the vetting process, there have already been some calls among Republicans to tie the issue to must-pass legislation to fund the government before a Dec. 11 deadline, but Ryan rebuffed that idea Tuesday, saying, “We don’t want to wait that long. We want to work on and act on this faster than that."

Democrats pointed out that refugees face a lengthy screening process before entering the United States, and said that the situation is different than the refugee crisis in Europe. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, in a press conference Tuesday, said that of the 750,000 refugees who have entered the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks, none have been arrested for terrorist activity. He said Democrats would have to wait and see what the Republican legislation looked like before taking a position on how to proceed.

“If it says something about making the process more rigorous than what we already have, I think you're going to find a lot of people very receptive,” Becerra said. “But if it simply says shut the door to people who are in fear of their life and no more than that, when we have a track record of showing that we have a process that rigorously inspects these individuals, I think then that's an overreaction based on fear and perhaps hate. And I would hate to see that.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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