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House votes to tighten entry rules on Syrian refugees

Photo Courtesy Office of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela

The door to the U.S. appears to be closing for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, 289-137, that would require supplemental certifications and background investigations to be completed before Syrian and Iraqi refugees are admitted into the country.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 4038, also known as the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act. Forty-seven Democrats and 242 Republicans supported the bill.

In a policy statement a day before the vote, President Barack Obama said if presented with the bill, he would veto it.

“The certification requirement at the core of H.R. 4038 is untenable and would provide no meaningful additional security for the American people, instead serving only to create significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives,” according to the Obama administration’s policy statement on the bill.

No refugee is approved for travel to the United States under the current system until the full array of required security vetting measures has been completed, the policy statement explains.

Among those voting in favor of the bill was U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas).

In an interview with The Rider this morning, Vela said the American SAFE Act requires high-level officials to verify that each Syrian refugee poses no security risk.

“The bill passed the House, which I voted for, that would require a pause [in] the entry of the 10,000 Syrian refugees so that the FBI director, our national intelligence director and Homeland Security secretary would certify that they’re not terrorists, essentially,” he said.

Vela said Congress should take a look at the visa waiver program as it relates to people traveling to and from Syria and Iraq.

“I suspect Congress will address that after the Thanksgiving break,” he said.

The current screening process involves multiple federal intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies, which include the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense, to ensure that refugees admitted do not pose a threat to the country, according to the policy statement.

These precautions include biometric (fingerprint) and biographic checks, medical screenings and an interview by specially trained DHS officers who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to assess whether the applicant meets statutory requirements to qualify as a refugee and that he or she does not present security concerns to the United States.

More than half of the state governors in the nation have issued statements saying they will not accept Syrian refugees who are fleeing a civil war in their native country.

Homeland Security has the authority to decide which refugees will be admitted into the country under the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program. Under U.S. law, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five “protected grounds”:


–political opinion



–membership in a particular social group

The processing time varies depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances. However, the average time from the initial referral of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to arrival as a refugee in the United States is about 18 to 24 months, according to the U.S. Department of State website.

Published reports say officials believe one of the suicide bombers in Paris was among a group of refugees.

After the Nov. 13 terrorist attack in Paris, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to the president on Monday, stating Texas “will not accept any refugees from Syria.”

In the letter, Abbott states he directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program “to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees.”

In Fiscal Year 2015, 190 refugees and 23 asylees from Syria came to Texas, according to information provided by the commission. In October, the first month of Fiscal Year 2016, 21 Syrian refugees had settled in Texas.

Vela said he thinks the governor’s approach regarding Syrian refugees is the wrong one.

“If the governor is calling for an absolute ban on the resettlement of Syrian refugees, first, I don’t think he can legally prevent the resettlement,” Vela said. “Second, a flat-out ban, I think, is a mistaken approach.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) told The Rider Tuesday he was disappointed with Abbott’s decision.

“The men, women and children that are fleeing their home country are doing so to get out of harm’s way and to be able to save their lives,” Lucio said. “We should not turn our backs on anyone, no matter where they come from, no matter what religions they might believe in, as long as they’re good men and women and good families, that are law abiding and also believe in God. I think shutting the door in their face is something that my God wouldn’t want us to do.”

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