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Michigan GOP helps pass bill to ‘pause’ Syrian refugees

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Michigan delegation voted along party lines Thursday as the U.S. House approved a bill to effectively suspend U.S. admissions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees by a vote of 289-137 — just short of the margin needed to override the presidential veto promised by the White House.

Forty-seven Democrats voted in support of the Republican measure, and two Republicans voted against it. Michigan’s nine Republicans including Justin Amash of west Michigan, the son of Syrian immigrants, supported the legislation, while the state’s five Democrats rejected it.

Rep. John Conyers of Detroit led the Democrats’ opposition to the bill on the House floor, calling the legislation an “extreme over-reaction” to the latest security concerns raised by the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.

“Instead of slamming our doors to the world’s most vulnerable, we should be considering legislation to strengthen and expand refugee programs,” said Conyers, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

He said the bill represents “election-year pandering to the xenophobia that rears up from threats from abroad.”

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, pushed back against comments by Obama this week that critics of refugee resettlement were scared of widows and orphans, who constitute the majority of Syrian refugees brought to the United States since 2011.

Gowdy, chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, is worried about policy that creates more widows and orphans, he said, stressing that officials don’t have the appropriate information to vet refugee applicants from failed nation-states.

“Given the consequences of reconciling the risk wrongly, how much risk is this administration willing to take?” Gowdy said on the floor. “When it comes to public safety, we have to be successful all of the time. Those who wish to do us harm only have to be successful once.”

The White House on Wednesday said Obama would veto the bill. Officials continued their defense of the screening and interview process for refugee applicants and said the legislation would introduce “unnecessary and impractical requirements” and create significant delays and obstacles in the refugee admission process.

The security screening involves several intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies including the National Counterterrorism Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense.

Checks include fingerprint and biographical background studies, medical exams and lengthy interviews by specially trained Homeland Security officers. The process typically takes 18 to 24 months.

The United States has admitted nearly 785,000 refugees in the 14 years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Of those, 12 — a fraction of 1 percent of admitted refugees — have been arrested or removed from the country due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the United States, according to an administration official.

None of the 2,174 Syrian refugees admitted have been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds, according to the White House.

Republicans say they’re responding to the concerns of the American people, noting public opinion polls showing they disapprove of Obama’s plans to bring in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.

More than 25 governors, including Gov. Rick Snyder, have said they’re either suspending or halting the intake of new Syrian refugees into their states.

Republican Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, who has urged the administration to examine weaknesses in the screening of refugees, criticized Obama’s intention to veto Thursday’s bill, calling it a “total abandonment of sound judgment.”

“When ISIS openly brags about its efforts to exploit the hospitality of Western nations accepting Syrian refugees, why would the president refuse such a common-sense proposal to implement higher security standards that would help protect Americans?” said Miller, vice chair of the Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, also applauded the bill’s passage.

“Americans deserve to know that our security is not being put at risk by the president’s resettlement program,” said Trott, a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. “It’s time President Obama puts the security of our nation ahead of his plans for Syrian resettlement.”

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, said it’s crucial in times of crisis that the Congress act in a bipartisan way, lamenting that wasn’t the Republicans’ process on the bill.

“The legislation before us sets a partisan course and is being used mainly as a vehicle to criticize the president’s foreign policy,” Levin said.

“The current screening system has been working. This bill does not improve it and could scramble up what is working.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

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