Sunrise at a refugee camp in Greece.

Sunrise at a refugee camp in Greece. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

The Death of a Divisive Refugee Bill

Senate Democrats blocked a measure to beef up screening for Iraqi and Syrian refugees. But debate over the refugees is far from over.

In the immediate wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last November, the U.S. House of Representatives acted quickly. Responding to stateside national-security concerns and rumored links between refugees and terrorists, lawmakers swiftly passed a bill that would greatly limit Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the country. But now, just over two months later, those efforts have hit a wall.

After the legislation, known as the American SAFE Act, passed the House with 47 Democratic votes, its supporters hoped the Republican-led Senate would act in kind and approve the controversial legislation. One of the bill’s cosponsors, North Carolina’s Richard Hudson, said the lower chamber had come together “to respond to the will of the American people and do our primary job to keep them safe.” On Wednesday, though, the Senate voted against a motion to move the bill to a final vote. Senate Republicans needed six of their Democratic colleagues to back their cause—but couldn’t manage it.

Minority Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning ahead of the vote to decry the 2016 Republican presidential candidates, notably Donald Trump, as having an undue influence on lawmakers in Washington. “We should be focusing all our efforts on defeating our real enemy, the brutal, evil ISIS,” Reid said. “Yet, this bill the Republican leader is bringing to the floor scapegoats refugees who are fleeing war and torture instead of creating real solutions to keep Americans safe.”

The high-profile vote came after months of public debate over the U.S. refugee program and religious tolerance, both inside and outside of Washington. Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who have been criticized for missing votes while running for president, both left the campaign trail forthe afternoon tally. Reid mocked the senators on the floor: It was a “big day” because both senators showed up on the Hill for the vote.

The American SAFE Act was designed to beef up the screening process for refugees from Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State has set up shop. According to the bill’s provisions, each refugee must undergo background checks from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Additionally, the homeland security secretary, the FBI director, and the national intelligence director must “certif[y]” to Congress that each individual refugee is not a “threat” to national security. The Obama administration has pushed back on the arduous legislation and said the president would veto it if it passed Congress: The bill would create “unnecessary and impractical requirements” that would hinder U.S. efforts to help “some of the most vulnerable people in the world” and “undermine” the country’s European and Middle East allies “in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis.”

Concerns about the U.S. refugee program surged in the days and weeks after November 13, the day the Islamic State launched coordinated attacks on Paris, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. Throughout 2015, many Americans had watched with worry as Europe saw roughly 1 million migrantsenter the continent, including about 500,000 who came from war-torn Syria. Some in the United States were spooked by reports that at least one Paris attacker had masqueraded as a migrant. (It was more recently reported that two of the perpetrators had entered Europe via Greece and had counterfeit Syrian passports.) According to a Bloomberg Politics poll conducted days after the massacre in Paris, 53 percent of those surveyed called for a prohibition on admitting Syrian refugees into the country, and 11 percent said only Christian Syrians should be allowed in. Those findings shouldn’t be too surprising: According to a Pew Research Center analysis, over the decades, “American opposition to admitting large numbers of foreigners fleeing war and oppression has been pretty consistent, regardless of official government policy.”

But “official government policy” is what divided lawmakers and state executives across the nation. Republicans railed against the Obama administration’s plan, first announced in September, to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees through 2016. The administration pushed back on suggestions—mostly from Republican lawmakers—that the country’s refugee screening process is inadequate. In a statement the day before the House vote, the administration said that all refugees aiming to relocate to the United States currently “undergo the most rigorous and thorough security screening of anyone admitted into the United States.” In the days following the attacks, 31 governors—almost all Republicans, including 2016 candidate Chris Christie—said they would reject any attempts to settle Syrian refugees in their states.  

Not surprisingly, the controversy dominated the campaign trail, too. After the attacks—and, in some cases, in spite of earlier support for the refugees—Republican presidential candidates called for a ban on Syrians coming to the United States or limiting the refugees admitted to only Christians. Even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham—who had suggested in September that the United States “take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down” if it wouldn’t welcome more refugees—said after the attacks that he’d support a “time-out” on letting them in. By early December, the rhetoric became even more fiery, as Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Some prominent Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan, have disputed the idea that the new restrictions have anything to do with the refugees’ faith.

Reid addressed the presidential race’s possible legislative effects on the floor Wednesday, suggesting that Republican policies in Washington are guided by the party’s 2016 candidates. “As the front-runner of the Republican nomination, Donald Trump and his proposals are leading the public debate in our country,” Reid said. “Republicans who support these illogical plans should be prepared for the next logical step, voting on his vision of America.” And with that, he floated an unusual proposal Mitch McConnell’s way before the vote: He suggested that if the majority leader wanted Democratic support, he’d need to permit votes on four amendments, one of which would “denounce” Trump’s “reprehensible proposal” for a religious test on Muslims. Other amendments included an increase in funding for police “antiterror” initiatives and a measure to block individuals on the government’s no-fly list from buying guns.

In his response to Reid’s remarks, McConnell rejected the premise that supporters of harsher screening are driven by hostility. Rather, he said, those Americans simply want to keep their families and communities safe. “The bipartisan bill would allow Washington to step back, take a breath, and ensure it has correct policies and security screenings in place before moving ahead with the refugee program for Iraq and Syria,” he said Wednesday morning. McConnell also added that the United States has a “proud tradition of compassion,” and while Americans “want to continue helping others … they want to do it in a smarter and more secure way.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Reid’s tongue-in-cheek proposal had gone no further, and 43 members ultimately voted against the American SAFE Act. Of course, the block doesn’t mean that public debate over refugees will dissipate any time soon. Migrants will keep flowing into Europe, and the battle against the Islamic State will rage on—two realities that will continue to drive the conversation around U.S. refugee policy. Plus, the 2016 campaign is only just starting to kick into high gear.