How the Debate Over Syrian Refugees Changed in an Instant

A Syrian man and his daughter reach the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from the Turkish coast in a dinghy. A Syrian man and his daughter reach the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from the Turkish coast in a dinghy. Santi Palacios / AP

In the minds of many politi­cians, the icon­ic im­age of a dead Syr­i­an boy on the beach has been swept away by the Par­is ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

After at least 129 died Fri­day in the City of Light, France em­barked on a man­hunt that spread to Bel­gi­um. It struck the Is­lam­ic State in Raqqa, Syr­ia while the United States hit the ter­ror­ist group’s oil trucks for the first time. In an ad­dress Monday, Pres­id­ent Obama de­fen­ded his re­mark just a day be­fore the at­tack that the Is­lam­ic State has been “con­tained,” not­ing that the group con­trols less ter­rit­ory than it did last year.

But it’s clearly not enough for many gov­ernors and mem­bers of Con­gress, who point to a Syr­i­an pass­port found on the ground near the body of a sui­cide bomber as evid­ence that Syr­i­an refugees are too dan­ger­ous to come to their back­yard. Obama an­nounced two months ago that the U.S. would ac­cept at least 10,000 Syr­i­an refugees next year, up from around 2,000 refugees the coun­try ac­cep­ted in the past four-plus years of ter­rible con­flict. (Ger­many, Tur­key, Le­ban­on, Jordan, and oth­ers have taken the brunt of re­spons­ib­il­ity for the 4 mil­lion-plus Syr­i­an refugees, al­though the U.S. has provided $4.5 bil­lion—the most among any coun­try—in hu­man­it­ari­an aid.)

In the past few days, at least a dozen Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors and New Hamp­shire’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Mag­gie Has­san, have pro­tested the ar­rival of Syr­i­an refugees in­to their states un­til the vet­ting pro­cess has been defin­it­ively vet­ted. While leg­al schol­ars and ad­vocacy groups doubt that is with­in a gov­ernor’s au­thor­ity—the State De­part­ment said Monday its law­yers were look­ing in­to it—GOP law­makers an­nounced Monday that there would be over­sight hear­ings as soon as this week eye­ing the stream of refugees and le­gis­la­tion to lim­it them.

House Home­land Se­cur­ity Chair­man Mi­chael Mc­Caul called to sus­pend their ad­mis­sion (back in Feb­ru­ary, he warned of a “fed­er­ally fun­ded ji­hadi pipeline”), as did Sen. Rob Port­man of Ohio, and the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Thursday to ex­am­ine the crisis. Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley is “ex­plor­ing” le­gis­la­tion to lim­it the flow of Syr­i­an refugees and look­ing at rem­ed­ies through the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess, ac­cord­ing to spokes­wo­man Beth Lev­ine. “Par­is changed things,” she ad­ded.

It was just Sept. 3—sev­er­al weeks ago—when front pages around the world showed a pic­ture of three year-old Ay­lan Kur­di, a Syr­i­an, washed up dead on a Turk­ish beach as a sober­ing sym­bol of the world’s greatest refugee crisis since World War II. A week later, Obama an­nounced his plan to dra­mat­ic­ally in­crease the num­ber of Syr­i­an refugees the U.S. would take. Around that time, GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates Marco Ru­bio and Don­ald Trump left the door open on tak­ing in some refugees. After the murders in Par­is, both have shut it, cit­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cerns; the lat­ter has said that the refugees could be “Tro­jan horses.”

The anti-refugee fever has hit the oth­er Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors run­ning for the White House. Rand Paul an­nounced a bill Monday that would sus­pend visas to those from “high-risk” coun­tries un­til Con­gress votes to re­approve them. And over the week­end, Ted Cruz said that Syr­ia’s Muslim refugees should be barred, al­though its Chris­ti­ans pose “no mean­ing­ful risk,” ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Even Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, a mar­gin­al GOP can­did­ate who in Oc­to­ber co­sponsored a bill for a bil­lion dol­lars in ad­di­tion­al spend­ing for the re­set­tle­ment of thou­sands more refugees, called for a “timeout” un­til “we have a sys­tem that we think will work.”

In re­sponse to a ques­tion by ra­dio host Hugh He­witt Monday, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, an­oth­er GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, said he had such little faith in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s abil­ity to vet Syr­i­an refugees that he doesn’t even think “orphans un­der 5” should be con­sidered. Tommy Vi­et­or, Obama’s former na­tion­al se­cur­ity spokes­man, noted on Twit­ter that Christie had pre­vi­ously poin­ted to Kur­di as a “sym­bol for this coun­try’s in­ac­tion and this pres­id­ent’s de­ceit.”

“This pres­id­ent has al­lowed these folks to be slaughtered,” Christie said in Septem­ber, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post. “I frankly can’t ima­gine as pres­id­ent of the United States how you could per­mit this to hap­pen on this scale, and now we’re see­ing those res­ults. And it’s much dif­fer­ent when you read about it, and when you see it—it be­comes even more power­ful.”

Some Re­pub­lic­ans have pushed back on shut­ting down the Syr­i­an refugee pro­cess. On Monday, Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Chair­man Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin called for wo­men, chil­dren, and re­l­at­ives of Syr­i­an-Amer­ic­an cit­izens to be pri­or­it­ized in a thor­ough vet­ting pro­cess. “We’re a pretty com­pas­sion­ate so­ci­ety here,” John­son said, adding that Syr­ia is the host of a “gen­o­cide.”

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