A boy looks on as new Syrian refugees arrive at the International Organization for Migration at the Za’atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Mafrq, Jordan. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.
The debate over the Syrian refugee crisis ratcheted up yesterday after the House of Representatives, in a landslide vote, approved veto-proof measures that would severely tighten the screening process for refugees trying to enter the United States. With the vote now headed to the United States Senate, some local elected officials were left defending their vote, while others were left expressing their stances on the issue.
The vote was a 289-137 victory for those—mostly Republican—politicians who have been vocal about closing the borders to refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, or severely restricting access to the country, ostensibly in an attempt to prevent a similar attack on American soil.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the vote, despite it being seemingly executed on a stiff party line, was the fact that 47 Democrats voted in favor of the tougher measures that have been classified by the White House as “untenable,” as they would require the director of the FBI, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to each personally confirm that any individual potential refugee was not a threat to the United States.
Congresswoman Janice Hahn was one of those Democrats, and one of eight in California, that crossed the party line in yesterday’s vote, despite attempts from the White House to keep them on board with a “no” vote. In a statement, Hahn acknowledged that refugees already go through a lengthy 21-step process that can take upward of two years to complete and that the U.S. has already rejected thousands of Syrian refugees over the past few years.
Long Beach’s other representative in Congress, Alan Lowenthal, voted against the bill.
According to the White House, over 23,000 Syrian refugees have applied for placement in the country since 2011; 7,014 have been interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security with just 2,034 eventually being admitted to the country. A potentially more important fact, though, is that none of those refugees have been linked to terrorism since moving to the US.
Hahn defended her vote to add the additional measures of security to the US vetting process of immigrant applicants, stating that she didn’t expect the extra layers of security to increase the amount of time it takes to process applicants. She also reiterated a feeling she expressed earlier in the week, that the country shouldn’t have to make a choice between compassion and security.
“In every sense of the word, I’m pro-immigrant, I’m pro-refugee,” Hahn said in a phone interview. “I think what struck me after the attacks in Paris was a real feeling of uneasiness from a lot of Americans and a real feeling or worry that something like that could happen here. I heard from my constituents and they wanted just a little more tightening up of the process before refugees were relocated in this country.”
Hahn also pointed to a letter she signed onto in September that was sent to President Barack Obama from over 70 members of Congress urging him to increase the number of refugees he aimed to bring into the US. The letter agreed with the Refugee Council USA’s recommendation that the country should resettle a mimimum of 200,000 refugees by the end of 2016, including 100,000 from Syria despite, the expected backlash.
“There are those who will oppose taking in additional refugees,” the letter read. “They will say it is a security risk or will hurt our economy. This criticism ignores the fact that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program subjects applicants to more thorough security vetting than any other traveler or immigrant to the United States.”
On Thursday, Hahn and 11 others who had signed the letter in support also voted in favor of increasing security measures. The bill approved Thursday must still make it through the Senate before arriving at President Obama’s desk, where he has publicly said it awaits his veto power.
She said she believed there should be pause before labeling those who voted in favor of the bill as anti-refugee, or those who voted against it as not caring about the national security of the country. She said that thinking of this as a partisan issue is wrong, and cited the lack of cooperation across party lines as one reason she’s decided to leave Congress.
Today on Facebook, Mayor Robert Garcia expressed a need to find a way to both accept refugees but also do it in a way that doesn’t compromise national security, seemingly echoing Hahn’s sentiments of still being open to those fleeing the civil war in Syria but wanting to be absolutely sure they pose no threat to Americans.
“In Long Beach, we are home to the largest Cambodian refugee community in the United States,” Garcia wrote. “Helping those who are escaping torture and terrorism and need refuge is the right thing to do and in my opinion an inherently American value. We must and can have a system that both welcomes refugees and ensures security here at home.”