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January 19, 2016

American SAFE Act Undermines Security Interests and American Values

Washington, D.C. - Human Rights First today urged the Senate to reject the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act (H.R. 4038), a bill that would immediately shut down the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq and severely handicap the United States' future ability to protect vulnerable refugees fleeing horrific violence in the Middle East. The Senate is scheduled to vote on a motion to proceed on the bill tomorrow afternoon. The House passed the bill in November.

“Passing the American SAFE Act would bring the already slow resettlement process to a grinding halt, leaving thousands of families fleeing horrific violence and terrorism literally out in the cold,” said Human Rights First’s Hardy Vieux. “The certification requirements are completely unworkable, making it impossible for the United States to uphold its commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees and 15,000 Iraqi refugees this year."

The bill has drawn scrutiny from some of the nation's most respected and experienced national security experts, who say that it is out of step with American ideals and could harm national security.

“The current system for screening Syrian and Iraqi refugees is rigorous and thorough,” said Matthew G. Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "Imposing a new system that requires high-level certification for each refugee would be burdensome and impractical.  And turning our backs on refugees fleeing the violence in Syria would only feed into ISIS's false message that we are at war with all Muslims, rather than with terrorist groups like ISIS."

"The United States has to lead here,” added Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Syria. "Shutting the door on vulnerable refugees would be hugely harmful to the larger interest of the United States in the region and feed right into the Islamic State narrative."

"Many Iraqis volunteered, often at considerable risk, to assist the U.S. military and U.S.-based non-governmental organizations. They have submitted to robust background checks and are now seeking safety for themselves and their families in the United States,” said Brigadier General Murray Sagsveen (U.S. Army, Ret.) "It would be a cruel irony for this country to now slam the door on them and their families."

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 screenings conducted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Defense (DOD), and U.S. intelligence agencies before ever being allowed entrance into the country. 

The organization notes that the American SAFE Act, if passed, would effectively shut down the resettlement of refugee families from the Syria and Iraq region, possibly for years. The bill would create an 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 very high level officials. The American SAFE Act would require the secretary of homeland security, the FBI director, and the director of national intelligence to “certify” to a host of 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. The bill would take years to implement while processes are created and standards are determined. 

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 with Vieux, Olsen, Crocker, or Sagsveen, contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at margolisme@humanrightsfirst.org or 212-845-5269.