WASHINGTON: Top US Republicans demanded a halt Tuesday to a White House program to resettle Syrian refugees in America following the Paris attacks, a move that threatens to dislodge longstanding bipartisan humanitarian cooperation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a “pause” in the scheme, joining more than half of state governors who have urged President Barack Obama in recent days to suspend the program and fully review the vetting process to ensure that would-be attackers do not slip into the country as refugees.
“Our nation has always been welcoming but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan told reporters.
“This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
Some Democrats shared similar views, including senior Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer who acknowledged it might be “necessary” to pause the program amid a review.
Suspected Islamic State extremists killed 129 people and injured hundreds in coordinated attacks in Paris last Friday.
The discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one Paris assailant has revived Europe’s debate on how hard a line to take on the record migrant influx, and stirred fears in US lawmakers and governors that jihadists are seeking to blend in with refugee masses in order to strike later.
Ryan said he and others were working on legislation to quickly address the Syrian refugee crisis.
Several bills were already being drafted, including one by presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz that reportedly would ban all Syrian Muslims from resettling in the US.
Others are aimed at blocking Obama’s program that could take in up to 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016.
Hours after his chamber held a moment of silence for the Paris victims, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others said they favored a “moratorium” on Syrian refugees.
“I, for one, don’t feel particularly comforted by the assertion that our government can vet these refugees,” McConnell said.
The US administration defended its four-decade refugee policy, insisting that screening was sufficiently stringent.
But officials acknowledged they were wary of losing public support and the longstanding bipartisan congressional backing for the program.
“This is a very precious thing, and in the current day and age it has been a rare thing, so I hope that that continues,” a senior administration official said.
The issue has become a political football in the US presidential election. Several Republican candidates including Donald Trump and Ben Carson have announced their strong opposition to the refugee program.
“There is no way that we can put any of our people at risk by bringing people in at this point,” said Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who shifted his refugee stance after saying in September that America had a humanitarian duty to accept them.
The top Democrat in the race, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, lashed out at suggestions from Cruz and Jeb Bush that aid be prioritized for Christian refugees over Muslims.
“The idea that we’d turn away refugees because of religion is a new low,” she tweeted.
More than four million Syrians have fled their homeland since the war began.
Between October 1, 2011 and November 14 of this year, the United States admitted 2,159 Syrian refugees, according to the State Department.
That slow pace is due largely to the comprehensive screening process that is conducted in refugee camps in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and takes 18 to 24 months.
Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, insist the system is inadequate.
“Just last month, FBI director (James) Comey told this committee that the US refugee vetting process is not adequate to guarantee that Syrians referred for resettlement in the US are not terrorists who plan to harm us,” Goodlatte said.
Many of the governors revolting against the refugees expressed similar security concerns.
But it was not clear what practical effect state-level opposition would have on administration policy.
“This is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law and refugees arriving in the US are protected by the Constitution and federal law,” the senior official said.
Xavier Becerra, a senior House Democrat, insisted that 750,000 refugees have been resettled in America since 9/11, and “not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges in the United States.”
McConnell appeared to dispute that, citing the case of an Iraqi man living in Kentucky “who came into the US as a refugee, vetted, who ended up being arrested for plotting a terrorist attack.”