The House on Thursday erected new barriers to Syrian refugees, with a measure that divides California lawmakers and hits home among some Central Valley families.
Sparked by last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, the legislation approved by a veto-proof 289-137 margin faces White House opposition and an uncertain fate in the Senate. Already, it’s provoked strong sentiments in the state that annually receives thousands of refugees from abroad.
“It simply increases the requirements that it takes to get in, and have them certified by those in the best position to know,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. “Hopefully, only those can be fully vetted will get through.”
Nunes joined every California House Republican and 47 House Democrats, including Central Valley-area Reps. Jim Costa of Fresno, Ami Bera and John Garamendi, in voting for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act.
The five-page bill effectively impedes admission of Syrian refugees by requiring that the FBI director, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and director of national intelligence unanimously certify that each of the refugees “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”
“This legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis,” the White House said in a statement.
One critic, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, warned that the individual certification requirement “will consume all of the working hours” of the nation’s top national security officials, and other Democrats fumed that the quickly drafted post-attack legislation zipped through without hearings or serious thought.
“There are things we could have done in a bipartisan way,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said, “and that is the way I would have hoped we would have proceeded with this.”
Only two House Republicans voted against the legislation.
“There needs to be more done, but this is an important step,” Nunes said.
Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Nunes helped craft the GOP package as part of a task force convened by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield the day after the Paris attacks.
Starting with a weekend teleconference call, the half-dozen House committee leaders quickly coalesced their efforts around the legislation introduced Wednesday. By the time the measure came to a vote, several dozen governors had declared their states would no longer welcome Syrian refugees.
While the governors’ no-refugees positions might not withstand legal challenge, they reflect what Costa termed the “jitteriness” of the U.S. public that was also apparent in the House’s vote margin Thursday afternoon.
An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released Wednesday found that Americans disapprove letting more refugees into the country by a margin of 56-41 percent.
“The American public is concerned, and they have reason to be, about whether the government is doing everything possible to protect them,” Costa said.
Some of the Democrats who voted for the bill, including Bera, represent potential swing districts being targeted by Republicans in the 2016 election. But Bera insisted that “this isn’t about politics, it’s about keeping America safe.”
A total of 6,108 refugees arrived in California in Fiscal 2014, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Thirty two of these new refugee arrivals came from Syria.
All told, 215 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States between 2012 and 2014, with 43 starting their new lives in California. The Obama administration has talked of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees, which would be a major increase for the United States, but still a small fraction of the total ending up in other countries.
“With what we’ve seen in Paris and elsewhere, we need to make sure the refugees coming in are vetted and we can provide a guarantee that there will not be a terrorist admitted through this program,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said.
Denham’s congressional district includes a number of Assyrians, who are Christians originally from either Iraq or Syria, and he co-chairs the Congressional Assyrian Caucus.
“Those that have a family member in the United States should be vetted first,” Denham said.
The Senate’s intentions concerning refugees have not yet been made entirely clear, though Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California on Thursday joined other lawmakers in proposing an alternative that would require a travel visa for European citizens who have spent time in war-torn Iraq or Syria in recent years.
William Douglas of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.