By Demetri Sevastopulo and Barney Jopso
November 16, 2015
President Barack Obama said it was “shameful” that some US politicians were urging his administration to halt a programme to bring Syrian refugees into the country, arguing that it was “not American” to institute a religious litmus test for refugee policy.
Speaking in Turkey after the G20 summit, Mr Obama was responding to criticism of his plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the coming year, up from 1,500, under pressure from Europe. Since the Paris attacks, Republican presidential contenders have hammered him over the plan, which was announced in September, with Donald Trump saying that he would deport all Syrians.
In recent days, sixteen state governors have said they would block Syrian refugees coming to their states — the leaders of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.
“When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted . . . that’s not American, that is not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion,” Mr Obama said.
In criticism aimed at Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two Cuban-American senators running for president, Mr Obama said it was “shameful” to espouse such policies when “some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing from political persecution”.
The Paris attacks have sparked fear-mongering in a number of countries, including the US, and bolstered critics of refugee policy.
On Friday, just as the top EU official for migration was urging the White House to be “more generous” in accepting Syrian refugees, Paris was struck by a series of attacks that immediately boosted political opposition to his stance.
Many Republican presidential contenders and other party members now want the White House to scrap or defer the refugee programme.
Frank Luntz, a pollster, said that the refugee issue would have an even greater impact on the 2016 campaign after the attacks, particularly for the Republicans, but stressed that both parties were “stoking it for their own political purposes”.
“I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Robert Bentley, the governor of Alabama, said on Sunday. Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, added on Monday: “A Syrian ‘refugee’ appears to have been part of the Paris terror attack. American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to similar deadly danger.”
Peter Shumlin, the Democratic Governor of Vermont, offered to take in Syrian refugees, accusing those who did not as “stomping” on American values.
Ben Carson, the retired brain surgeon leading the Republican field with Donald Trump, said that allowing refugees from the Middle East into the US was a “huge mistake”.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans ramped up existing efforts to introduce new controls on refugee resettlement. Michael McCaul, chair of the House homeland security committee, and Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate judiciary committee, are both working on bills to ensure stringent vetting of Syrian arrivals, said congressional aides.
In a defensive speech on Monday, Mr Obama called on his critics to return to what he said were American values. “The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism" he said. “It is very important . . . that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”
Mr Obama reminded Republicans that when Pope Francis recently spoke to the US Congress, he urged compassion for all people, and not just Christians.
Over the weekend, Mr Trump said it was “insane” that Mr Obama wanted to accept 250,000 refugees, using a wildly exaggerated figure. Other party contenders have voiced worries about the US’s ability to screen refugees.
“We won’t be able to take more refugees. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t,” said Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator. “There’s no way to background check someone that’s coming from Syria.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, rejected those claims, saying that authorities had “very extensive screening procedures”. James Stavridis, a retired US admiral and former Nato supreme allied commander, said that the US had both the technology and capability to vet Syrian refugees “safely and appropriately”.
“We should continue to take a substantial number of Syrian refugees because it is the right thing to do for the international community and because over time they will prove to be citizens of real capability and true grit, like many who immigrated before them in troubled times, said Mr Stavridis. “The key is serious vetting using all the tools at our disposal.”
But some officials in charge of vetting applicants have conceded that there is a risk of infiltration. James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently told Congress that while there were challenges screening Iraqi refugees, the process was tougher for Syria. “If we have no information on someone, they’ve never crossed our radar screen . . . it will be challenging,” he said.
A senior administration official told the FT that it was important to look at the entire vetting programme. The official added that the US had a rigorous screening programme and that Mr Comey was simply referring to the FBI component, which is mostly focused on people with criminal records.
Protests have flared around the US over the issue. Some counties in South Carolina have passed resolutions against the so-called “Refugee Resettlement Project”. While some concerns have been sparked by the rise of Isis and images of Syrians fleeing into Europe, there have been cases, including one in Kentucky, where refugees in the US were convicted of providing support for terrorists.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the White House is caught between European allies who want the US to bear a bigger burden and Republicans who say the administration must prioritise citizens’ safety.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia politics expert, said the attacks would make Republicans “even more anti-immigration” and force more moderate candidates, such as Mr Rubio and Jeb Bush, to take a tougher stance, which could hurt the party’s standing with non-white voters in the general election. But he said the Democrats also faced a conundrum since it was “hard to see how they can continue to support absorbing 10,000 Syrians into the US”.
The US has long been a magnet for refugees, attracting everyone from Vietnamese after the Vietnam war to Cubans escaping the communist regime of Fidel Castro. While the number of refugees entering the US fell after the 2001 terror attacks, it has since edged up again. John Kerry, secretary of state, recently said that the US would boost its annual quota of refugees from 70,000 now to 100,000 by 2017.
While that would mark a 43 per cent rise, it pales in comparison to the response in much of Europe. Sweden, which is taking the highest proportion of refugees per capita in Europe, is expected to accept 190,000 people this year, equal to 1.8 per cent of its population.
Even if the US took 100,000 refugees that would only equate to 0.03 per cent of its total population.
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