Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives cranked the volume to 11 in the xenophobic hysteria over Syrian refugees that has gripped the country all week. The American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which would effectively keep Syrian (and Iraqi) refugees from entering the U.S., was passed by a vote of 289 to 137. 47 of those votes were cast by Democrats, including five Texans: Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Rep. Gene Green of Houston, Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville.
It’s extremely disappointing that these congressmen did not stand up to the Republican fear mongering and vitriol that has our country ready to act as though the Statue of Liberty is no longer our national symbol. Not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of anger and surprise in the discussion on Facebook and Twitter about the vote.
What we really needed yesterday were calm voices to explain what’s at stake with this bill and why opposing it is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. That’s why Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso’s explanation for his vote in opposition to the bill made such a strong impression on me when I read it last night. It’s tempting to quote the entire post but I’ll limit myself to Rep. O’Rourke’s central argument:
Our process for reviewing refugee applications is rigorous and effective. It takes 18–24 months to review an application, and only a small minority of those who apply are accepted. Of the 23,000 Syrian refugees referred to the United States since 2011 by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, only 7,000 made it to a second stage of our review process. Of those, only 2,000 were admitted to the U.S. And those were the most vulnerable — the children, the old and the families fleeing brutality and torture. Only 2% of them were single males of working age.
The process proposed in today’s bill would create unnecessary, duplicative work and processes for U.S. security agencies. This would significantly delay the current rigorous process by up to 2 years, according to the Administration. In effect, it would close the door on refugees during the single greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.
In addition, FBI Director James Comey says this legislation is “counterproductive to national security. … It plays into our enemy’s propaganda as it tarnishes the appeal of our historic ability to safely assimilate the oppressed and persecuted and seems to confirm their misrepresentation of our objectives in the Middle East (that we care nothing for the lives of those affected by this horrific violence). [emphasis added]
On the other hand, Rep. Doggett issued a statement that only made his yes vote more confusing:
Instead of working together to make our families safer, this partisan four page bill divides. Fortunately, it does not halt the refugee resettlement program– it simply requires bureaucrats to file more reports and sign more papers. I voted for it asking the Administration to certify that each person admitted through the thorough, existing process actually poses no security risk. Republicans should reverse course and join us to address genuine challenges, instead of blameless victims fleeing violence in Syria.
Why would Lloyd Doggett, a known champion for refugee and immigrant communities and their rights, vote for a “partisan bill that divides?” It simply makes no sense. In what seems to be an attempt to hit back at some of the inflammatory speeches given on the House floor, he said, “Fortunately, it does not halt the refugee resettlement program,” as though that should come as a relief. Well, on a certain level it is, but why would that make it worth voting for? And perhaps the idea that all this bill is going to do is make more work for bureaucrats could be seen as reassuring. It’s not. Instead, it comes off almost as a non-sequitor instead of a reason to vote for a bill that Republicans were screaming about at the top of their lungs as the only way to keep dangerous America-haters out.
Oddly enough, Rep. Cuellar’s explanation for his yes vote feels more satisfactory than Rep. Doggett’s. Much of that is due to his use of more specific language. He’s upfront about his reasons for supporting the bill, but he also acknowledges the refugees’ incredible need (even though, in a rather bold rhetorical move, he takes a position that will keep them from finding safety in the U.S.):
The devastation and sheer terror that women, children and families are facing in war-ravaged Syria is a world humanitarian crisis that we simply cannot turn our backs to. However, I believe we do need a very tough screening process for any Syrian refugee who wants to come to the US and that is why today I voted in favor of the American SAFE Act. This bill requires that, in addition to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) screening, the FBI ensure that each individual receives a background investigation before admission to the U.S..
Rep. Cuellar also explains the increased bureaucratic process referred to by Rep. Doggett. Apparently, it’s an FBI background screening, a type of investigation that seems highly unlikely to succeed, It’s seems unreasonable to expect the FBI to be able to verify previous addresses or places of employment, given that 4.3 million Syrians have registered for refugee status with the U.N.. Tracking down those references might prove to be a sticking point.
If you’re interested in the backstory on the Democratic split on the bill, Politico and Roll Call published detailed reports yesterday explaining what happened to make it possible for 47 Democrats to oppose the administration and vote with the Republicans. Frankly, the accounts are not pretty. It’s disheartening that the administration didn’t make a better case to the Democratic caucus. And whenever Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gives the Democratic caucus members permission to “vote their districts,” we’re going see to some Democrats vote in ways that puzzle, enrage or trouble us.
We traveled a lot of ground in less than seven days. We’ve gone from the Beirut and Paris attacks to a Congressional vote to make it practically impossible for the country to accept Syrian refugees and a growing panic that an attack is likely, if not imminent. It’s gotten worse and worse all week. That’s why Rep. O’Rourke’s explanation—and his vote in support of an America that offers refuge and hope to those fleeing danger and violence in their native countries—was so reassuring. And so important.