Effort to block refugees gaining strength in U.S. House

The Obama administration defended safeguards in place for refugees in the wake of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, but it appears to be rowing against the political tide.

House Republican leaders set up a task force to address the issue, in the hopes of voting on a stand-alone bill this week before Congress skips town for Thanksgiving.

Senate leaders indicated they will follow suit, but the precise policy remains unclear. One option is to stop any Syrian entries until the program is audited and more background check steps are put in place.

In addition, Republican leaders are likely to attach refugee language to a must-pass spending bill covering the entire government, raising the prospect of a government shutdown in December.

“There’s already been talk: ‘Oh, you’re willing to shut down the government?’ ” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Cassville Republican.

“Let’s see if the president is willing to shut down the government to allow the refugees embedded with terrorists to come here,” Loudermilk said. “This is what the American people are looking for, bipartisan across the board. They’re looking for leadership. I think we can do that. We have to do that. We’re talking about lives.”

U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, agreed with the sentiment.

“We do not have a mechanism to vet the 10,000 Syrian refugees headed to the U.S.,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “Until we can verify who is coming to our country, we should halt the influx of refugees.”

‘Not the role of governors’

It was not a universal view in the delegation, as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, said he did not think Congress needed to change a refugee screening process that has “operated well all these many years.”

Lewis disagreed with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who took a mostly symbolic stand Monday saying Georgia would not welcome Syrian refugees, joining dozens of governors. The federal government works with nonprofits to settle the refugees, but states could make it tougher for them to access public benefits and erect other hurdles.

Since 2011, Georgia has accepted 66 refugees from Syria.

“It’s the role of the federal government and not the role of governors to say who can and cannot come,” Lewis said. “I think we have the capacity to monitor, to vet people before they come in.”

President Barack Obama, who had pledged to take in 10,000 Syrians over the next year, told reporters Monday that “slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.”

50 percent clear screening

Senior Obama administration officials on Tuesday defended the process for asylum seekers, who are screened by their names and fingerprints. Syrians face an additional layer of screening.

The overall approval rate is about 50 percent, administration officials said. About half of the Syrian refugees entering the U.S. are children, and only 2 percent are single males of combat age, according to the administration.

The program’s critics say that screenings and safeguards mean less when the U.S. has few intelligence assets on the ground in Syria.

“How we gonna vet ‘em?” said U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican who serves on the Intelligence Committee.

“We gonna call (Syrian President Bashar) Assad and say, ‘Hey, can you send us the information your intelligence services have got on this guy?’ I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Backers claim bipartisan support

Georgia’s members of Congress said they were hearing from constituents of all stripes on the issue.

“What you see is just broad bipartisan concern for the approach that the administration is currently taking with just an open policy,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Ranger Republican.

The deluge came following Friday night’s coordinated terror strikes in Paris that killed 129 and injured hundreds more. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility, and Westmoreland said, following an intelligence briefing, that “we do know that at least one of (the attackers) did come through the refugee exodus.”

Loudermilk, a member of the Homeland Security Committee who serves on a task force addressing foreign fighters, was in Paris earlier this year on a fact-finding trip. He said the government there was too focused on homegrown radicals rather than fighters going to Syria for training and returning, via Europe’s porous borders, to launch an attack.

“The only reason it hasn’t happened here is because our counterterrorism officials have been working 24/7/365 on overtime,” Loudermilk said. “And if we bring the additional threat of refugees in here, it would overstretch our resources.”

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