Hours after November’s Paris attacks as suspicion arose that one of the dead terrorists was a Syrian refugee, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., told his staff it was time to act on a proposal he’d been mulling: to temporarily block some asylum-seekers until more security checks are added to the United States’ national refugee-screening regime.
A version of Hudson’s bill has been part of various policy proposals helping to shape a national debate recently over President Barack Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year. The Senate might take up the issue soon after it reconvenes Monday, though political observers are skeptic about the bill’s fate.
The weekend following the Paris attacks, Hudson and his staff crafted legislation that would require agencies such as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to find new ways of vetting refugees driven from their war-torn homes to countries like the United States. When lawmakers returned the next Monday, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives helped quickly focus attention toward Hudson’s bill while other lawmakers floated suggestions of stopping the refugee resettlement program altogether or imposing a moratorium.
But before a vote, the second-term congressman’s proposal for a “pause” to the refugee program was folded into a similar bill by the same name, sponsored by a more senior member. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, introduced a more detailed version of Hudson’s idea and that legislation won bipartisan support in a veto-proof vote.
Soon after, officials confirmed that none of the Paris attackers were Syrian or had entered the country posing as refugees. And nearly half the Democrats who’d voted for the temporarily halt to refugees seemed to pull away from the urgency of the bill by sending a letter to the speaker of the House asking that the issue not be a negotiating factor during Congress’ omnibus spending talks.
But by then, the floodgates were open and members of both parties were struck by recollections of FBI Director James Comey saying during an October congressional hearing that, while vetting processes had improved significantly in recent years, he could not make assurances that refugees didn’t come with risks.
The FBI “can just make sure that whatever is available figures into our review,” Comey said. “But the underlying problem is, how do you generate intelligence in failed states? And that’s one I don’t have a good answer for. . . . I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”
Those remarks, Hudson says now, sparked his initial interest in the issue.
“Then Paris happened, and all the sudden everything changed,” he said in an interview. “I said (to my staff), ‘We’re just gonna write the bill – it’s too important.’ ”
Since then, critics with opposing views on the issue have voiced discontent over the McCaul-Hudson bill.
One lobbyist this week, Yasmine Taeb with Friends Committee on National Legislation, calls the anti-refugee bill “a knee-jerk reaction” to the Paris terror attacks and says lawmakers such as Hudson were likely feeling pressure to act from constituents who were angry and fearful.
She puts his proposal in the same category of “hate rhetoric” as Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s remarks about banning all Muslims from coming to the United States. Taeb and others argue that existing security screenings of people fleeing Iraq and Syria are strict enough to ensure terrorists don’t pass through.
Hudson says he supports the overall refugee program but, “When we don’t know who these people are, you got to err on the side of not letting them in.” He disagrees that his idea is in step with Trump’s appeal but says he understands Trump’s reasoning.
His suggestion to temporarily stop refugees until additional screening is done “is not fiery rhetoric – this is common sense,” Hudson said.
If there’s a hole in the bucket, let’s turn the water spigot off.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., on refugee security
Requiring a higher “bar” or certification from national security officials that no Iraqi or Syrian refugees in the U.S. pose a security threat will not shut down the resettlement program, Hudson contends. He acknowledges, though, that some people with little paperwork to prove their identity and few references for U.S. officials to vet their prior employment, travel and family members may be denied if his refugee “pause” bill is made law.
“And I’m OK with that. . . . Our first responsibility is to the American people,” Hudson said.
Hudson shrugs off complaints that his proposal effectively would close doors to people in need. His proposal would still allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the United States, he said.
“Because of my bill, you’re not going to stop the paperwork,” he said, referencing the months- and sometimes years-long process refugees go through to leave a violent homeland and move to another country legally.
Still, some argue Hudson’s proposal doesn’t go far enough.
“It won’t make any difference,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
Jones co-sponsored Hudson’s original bill but voted against the McCaul-Hudson version because he wanted the legislation to have more teeth.
No amendments were allowed to the proposal in November, including one Jones supported that would have placed a six-month moratorium on the bill. On Friday, Jones called the final version that passed the House a “shell bill” and merely an effort by Republicans to “look tough” on an issue without cutting funding for the president’s plan.
Jones was one of two Republicans in the House to vote against Hudson’s proposal. North Carolina’s three congressional Democrats also opposed it.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where Hudson says Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, has agreed to put it to a vote. McConnell committed to that, Hudson said, after GOP leaders in the House settled on leaving a refugee “rider” out of last month’s omnibus spending negotiations.
McConnell’s office says the vote will come sometime in the first quarter of the year.
Senate hurdle may be too high
The Senate will convene for the first time since Christmas on Monday. Even if the McCaul-Hudson bill is discussed on Day One, there’s a good chance “the momentum has been lost,” said political scientist David McLennan, a visiting Meredith College professor from Texas.
A legislative move to block or restrict refugees in light of the Paris attacks was a “reactionary bill,” though it was in line with how many of Hudson’s North Carolina constituents probably felt at the time, McLennan said.
A High Point University opinion poll from before the Paris terrorist attacks shows North Carolinians were divided in September and October on whether the U.S. should admit more Syrian refugees. About half of the survey respondents said the country had a responsibility to take in refugees but just less than half supported more Syrian refugees moving to the United States.
The Senate, McLennan said, is a more “reasonable, deliberative body,” and will likely take a harder look at the refugee security issue without the same emotion that helped move along the McCaul-Hudson bill.
2,000+ Syrian refugees currently in U.S.
Still, Hudson and others who have opposed Syrian refugee resettlement in North Carolina – such as Gov. Pat McCrory and Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews – have likely won favor with voters for their stance, McLennan said. The issue also thrust Hudson into the national limelight. The Charlotte native and Concord resident has appeared on national television – including Fox News, CNN and MSNBC – eight times since his bill was filed.
Even an announcement Friday from the federal Department of Justice that two Palestinian men who’d arrived as refugees had been arrested – one in California and one in Texas – on terrorism charges likely isn’t enough to sway senators who don’t already support Hudson’s idea, McLennan said. But, he added, a large-scale terrorist attack involving refugees might give the issue more urgency.
Whether his bill becomes law or is set aside by the Senate, Hudson “looks good to his constituents,” McLennan concludes.
Taeb, the lobbyist, also has doubts that Hudson’s idea will find overwhelming support in the Senate. She says fear and misconceptions about refugees drove the initial support for the bill. Since then, she said, many lawmakers have had a “wake-up call. . . . This is not who we are.”
Hudson, though, says his bill isn’t meant to reject people based on ethnicity or religion. He thinks there are deficiencies in the government’s ability to vet refugees and says, “If there’s a hole in the bucket, let’s turn the water spigot off” until it’s fixed.
If federal officials need more money and resources to comply with the proposed requirements, Hudson said, he’d recommend Congress reappropriate money currently used to study global warming to provide more support for the refugee resettlement screenings.
Refugees face increased suspicion; church groups help
Political discord over refugees isn’t slowing the work of one North Carolina nonprofit resettlement agency or church-goers who volunteer to help immigrant families in the state’s Triangle region.
The refugee screening process is the “path of most resistance” to enter the U.S. and current screenings provide thorough vetting, says Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham – one of four resettlement assistance groups in the Triangle area. He notes that since adoption of the U.S. Refugee Act in 1980, no admitted refugees have committed terror attacks on U.S. soil.
Recent events have drawn more attention to Syrian asylum-seekers but those refugees who live in North Carolina largely come from other countries, Clark said.
“And, the vast majority of refugees don’t even get the opportunity to resettle. . . . (They) languish in camps. . . . Most just get stuck somewhere. It’s a long and miserable experience for most of them.”
World Relief Durham and other agencies across the Triangle area help nearly 1,000 refugees a year transition to the U.S., Clark said. Recently, his group helped a family of refugees from Somalia – adult children and their parents – unite after years apart.
Clark’s organization has worked with members from nearly 180 churches over recent years to provide support for refugees – from airport greetings and housing setup to cultural exchanges.
“A lot of refugees are afraid that when they get here, Americans will be fearful of them. . . . They face increased suspicion,” Clark said, adding that most refugees prioritize upon arrival finding jobs, English language classes and schools for their children.
A poll conducted by Bloomberg Politics in the days following the Paris attacks shows most Americans wanted to stop the flow of Syrian refugees, due to security concerns.
Such attitudes toward refugees isn’t new or exclusive to people from the Middle East, according to a recent analysis of decades of public opinion polling by the Pew Research Center. Prior polls ran by other groups – ranging in date from 1958 to 1999 – show anti-refugee sentiment has historically been prevalent in the U.S. toward other people such as Hungarians, Cubans and Vietnamese.
“It comes in waves,” Clark said, who believes stereotypes about refugees persist because Americans don’t know the stories of people fleeing war zones and don’t understand the current vetting process.
– Anna Douglas