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Home / Press Release / House Passes Bill to Severely Handicap U.S. Protection of Syrian and Iraqi Refugees
November 19, 2015

House Passes Bill to Severely Handicap U.S. Protection of Syrian and Iraqi Refugees

New York City – Today the House of Representatives passed the American Safe Act, a bill that would effectively shut down the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq and severely handicap the future ability of the United States to provide protection to vulnerable refugees fleeing horrific violence in the Middle East. Human Rights First urges the Senate to reject this proposal and any other proposal that would halt or pause the already slow and thorough process for resettlement of vulnerable Syrian refugee families who are fleeing violence and terrorism. In response to today’s vote, Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer issued the following statement:

“This bill would slam the door in the face of the most vulnerable Syrian and Iraqi refugee families by creating a completely unworkable ‘certification’ requirement that would make it nearly impossible to resettle any refugee families from the region, given the level of bureaucratic coordination and time this process would require from high level officials. The requirement that each individual refugee would have to await a formal certification by the secretary of homeland security, the FBI director, and national intelligence director—officials who have other pressing national security demands on their time— will make it impossible to move more than a handful of refugees through the process.    

"This bill sends exactly the wrong message to the world, to U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe, and to persecuted people fleeing violence and terror. The bill will bring the U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees—which is already a modest initiative that is moving at a snail’s pace—to a grinding halt. This is not what U.S. global leadership looks like. America is a country that has long been committed to protecting the persecuted. We can provide refuge to victims of persecution while also safeguarding our security.

"Ironically, efforts to slow or stop resettlement of Syrian refugees and the unwelcoming rhetoric used by some political leaders actually undermine U.S. national security as various national security experts have confirmed this week."

Human Rights First notes that under the current system, Syrian refugees are more closely vetted than any other group allowed entrance to the United States and undergo a multi-step series of background checks and security screening. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees first registers refugees, interviews them, takes biometric data and background information. Based on the refugee’s level of vulnerability, and their knowledge of the stringent U.S. screening process, the U.N. agency refers some refugees for consideration by the United States.  These refugees—overwhelmingly women and children, torture survivors and other particularly vulnerable refugees—have been living in Jordan, Turkey or other frontline refugee-hosting countries for years, struggling to survive. The U.S. government then conducts its own extremely rigorous screening process, including health checks, repeated biometric checks, several layers of biographical and background screening.  Each individual is interviewed, while still abroad, by specially-trained Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers. Multiple agencies are involved, including the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Defense, and U.S. intelligence agencies. DHS has added an additional country-specific layer of enhanced review for Syrian refugee applications, which includes extra screening for national security risks.  

This morning Former Secretaries of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff sent a letter to President Obama, making clear that the current process for vetting refugees for resettlement in the United States is “thorough and robust and, so long as it if fully implemented and not diluted, it will allow us to safely admit the most vulnerable refugees while protection the American people." Yesterday, the White House announced that it would veto the bill if it is passed by Congress.

The American Safe Act would require the secretary of homeland security, the FBI director, and the director of national intelligence to “certify” to 12 congressional committees that refugee applicants from Syria and Iraq are not a security threat without providing any guidelines for how this process will take place, how certification will be different from current background checks, or how these two processes will interact. Human Rights First notes that the bill would take years to implement while processes are created and standards are determined. These delays would decimate the U.S. resettlement process in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.   

The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, with over 60 million people displaced.  Over 4 million Syrians have fled their country due to conflict and persecution, and 7.6 million are displaced within Syria in need of humanitarian assistance. Many of these refugees have been stranded for years in neighboring countries where they cannot work or support their families, have little access to education, and lack the level of humanitarian assistance they need. Frontline states and key U.S. allies including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan continue to host the majority of the approximately 4 million refugees who have fled Syria, struggling under the strain of hosting so many refugees.

For more information or to speak to Acer, contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at margolisme@humanrightsfirst.org or 212-845-5269.