WASHINGTON – During a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the Obama administration’s plan to admit 110,000 refugees in fiscal 2017, Democrats and Republicans clashed fiercely over U.S. refugee policy. Democrat Al Franken called for expanding admissions, while Republican Ted Cruz said “it’s nuts” to suggest not having extra screening for Muslims’ entry.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, began the hearing by identifying stressing that the most effective long-term strategy would be to provide support to displaced people abroad instead of admitting more refugees into the United States.
“Good intentions can lead to disastrous consequences …,” he said. “The challenge for us is to look at what we can do to help in the best possible way, but we must also consider our limits.”
President Barack Obama earlier this month said the U.S. will accept 110,000 refugees in fiscal 2017, compared with 85,000 in in fiscal 2016.
There are 5 million potential refugees in the Syrian region, Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, told the committee.
“The United States remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people from security threats just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people,” Henshaw said. “We do not believe these goals are mutually exclusive.”
Leon Rodriguez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security, said refugees are the “most highly vetted” immigrants to the U.S. Sessions and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., pushed Rodriguez to give specific numbers of admitted refugees who were later found to be affiliated with terrorist activity; Rodriguez said he did not have the information.
“You’re in charge of the program, it seems to me you should know darn well what the number is,” Vitter said.
But Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., urged a “gut check” from the American people to consider the dangers facing Syrian refugees, with 400,000 people killed in their country’s civil war.
“Are we a country that’s just terrified?” Franken posed. “Are we office holders whose job it is to give in to terrorists and tell them that we’re not going to live up to our values … or are we going to be a bigger people?”
He also condemned restrictions on Muslim immigrants from Syria suggested by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and some GOP senators.
“I have a feeling ISIS terrorists might lie” about their religious affiliations when seeking entry to the U.S., Franken said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called Franken’s opposition to requesting information about a refugee applicant’s religion “nuts.”
“The refugee program as administered by this administration seems to have an enormous preference for Syrian Muslim refugees,” Cruz said. He said the program has admitted 11,624 Syrian Muslim refugees total.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-S.C., said he was “tired” of committee members “talking past each other.” He said the committee should focus less on debating Muslims refugees and more on “the integrity of the process” of admitting displaced peoples.