House votes for bill making Syrian refugee admission almost impossible

A volunteer carries a Syrian refugee girl off an overcrowded raft after landing at a rocky beach in the Greek island of Lesbos, November 19, 2015. © Yannis Behrakis
The US House of Representatives has voted on a bill that sharply increases the security screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, effectively blocking President Barack Obama's refugee settlement plan.

The final vote was 289 in favor, with 137 opposed. Some 48 Democrats, a quarter of the party’s representatives in the House, broke ranks and voted in favor of the bill. Only three Republicans were against.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, opposition to hosting Syrian refugees in the US has grown in many states. The US was planning to receive 30,000 refugees from Syria in 2016, after hundreds of thousands flooded Europe this summer. Now 31 states  say they would put a halt on their resettlement or even stop it completely, citing terror concerns.

Two of the terrorists involved in the November 13 Paris terror attacks got into Europe as refugees.

House Resolution 4038, the 'American SAFE Act of 2015', was sponsored Republican lawmakers Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina). The bill requires top US security officials (FBI, Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence) to certify that every refugee admitted to the US “does not represent a security threat,” according to McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The floor debate was divided along party lines, with Republicans arguing it was a measure to protect the US from Islamic State militants who might be infiltrating among the Syrian refugees, and Democrats blasting it as a xenophobic attack on President Obama’s refugee policy.

The bill ensured that a “benevolent safe haven in America is not used by terrorists to murder Americans,” said California Republican Dana Rohrabacher.

“ISIS cannot incapacitate US security leaders – this bill does,” by requiring the heads of US intelligence and security agencies to personally sign off on every refugee’s security evaluation, said California Democrat Brad Sherman.

As the House voted on a proposed amendment to the bill, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) held a press briefing.

Evaluating refugees so that something like Paris does not happen in the US “is just common sense,” Ryan told reporters, adding, “We're a compassionate nation. We don’t have to pick among our values.”

Protecting the American homeland is not a partisan issue, Ryan said, noting that input from the Democrats was included in the GOP-proposed HR 4038, and that President Obama's threat of a veto "baffled" him.