Why the Syrian refugee issue turned partisan so quickly

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a 'pause' in Syrian refugees coming to the US.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan, joined by House majority whip Steve Scalise, center, and Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R) of Kansas, far left, meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. Calling this a 'moment where it's better to be safe than to be sorry,' Speaker Ryan says there should be a 'pause' in Syrian refugees coming to the US in the wake of the Paris attacks, and has assembled a task force to bring legislation to a vote as soon as this week.

Since Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Republicans and Democrats have shown that they can at least mourn together. Beyond that, deep partisanship has quickly set in, particularly on US plans to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a “pause” in Syrian refugees coming to the United States. Some Republicans are threatening a budget showdown over the issue. Administration officials will motor to the Hill this week for hearings.

Since Sunday, more than half of state governors – mostly GOP, and one Democrat – have rushed to announce that their states would be closed to any Syrian refugees. Republican presidential candidates lost no time in quickly denouncing the program.

“This is not about politics. This is about national security,” Speaker Ryan (R) of Wisconsin told reporters Tuesday.

But there is no question that – given the nearly clean divide between the parties on this subject – election-year politics are coming into play. As are two other factors that often surface when it comes to terrorism: fear and confusion.

“National security issues generally favor Republicans,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas. “I also think a broad majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of national security. So this is very safe ground for them.”

That’s borne out in a detailed Pew Research Center poll from last year that shows Republicans are considerably more concerned about terrorism than Democrats and much more negative about the president’s handling of terrorism.

“The real question is, when will Democrats start crumbling?” Mr. Mackowiak asks. “We’re in [the election] cycle now. You’re going to have some Democrats in the Senate and House who are in competitive races looking to break with the president.”

There are signs that may be happening. On Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York suggested that a “pause” on refugees may be in order, but he is reserving judgment until all senators are briefed by the administration on Wednesday.

His Democratic colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, urges a "go slow" approach to refugees, saying the vetting process is “all important.” 

Still, she told reporters Monday, the US is taking a limited number of refugees – not 800,000 as Germany has promised. “I don’t want to be part of a ‘no refugees’ movement,” she said. “We’re a country of refugees.”

So far, Democrats seem to be mostly sticking with President Obama. On Monday, he said that blocking Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the US, as GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas proposes, is “not American. It’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

At the beginning of September, the world was deeply moved by a photograph of a migrant toddler washed ashore in Turkey, a policeman carrying his lifeless body after his boat sank. Shortly afterward, Mr. Obama announced that the US would accept 10,000 more Syrian refugees starting in October.

The Paris terrorist attacks, in which one of the attackers might have entered France with a Syrian passport, has triggered a sharp change in America’s political mood.

“It's embarrassing when a left-wing socialist French President shows strength and determination to eradicate animals who are slaughtering innocent civilians while our President lectures us on the moral necessity to open our borders to tens of thousands of un-vetted people from the Middle East,” GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in a statement Monday.

Actually, refugees are vetted, says Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. She’s concerned that the situation in Europe – where migrants are surging into countries unscreened – is being confused with the US refugee resettlement process.

That begins with vetting by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – including interviews and the collection of biographic and biometric information. The UN then recommends screened refugees to the US, which begins its own screening process overseas that includes interviews and checking against key databases. It takes 18 to 24 months.

“It’s a completely different” situation from the one in Europe, says Ms. Brown. “People are losing sight of that.”

Mackowiak agrees that there’s “probably a little bit of confusion.” He adds that governors’ refusal to take in Syrian refugees indicates “there’s a lot of fear out there among people.”

That fear has actually been reinforced by some officials in the administration.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month, for instance, FBI Director James Comey admitted that, despite a large pool of data, a past program for vetting Iraqi refugees inadvertently allowed some refugees “of serious concern” into the US, including two that were charged when their fingerprints were found on explosive devices from Iraq.

The vetting program has since been improved, but US intelligence officials have less data available for cross-referencing in Syria, Mr. Comey said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this,” he said of the vetting process for refugees from Syria.

The administration on Tuesday defended its Syria vetting process as "intensive" and "enhanced."

When asked why refugees have become such a partisan issue, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois says simply, “We should listen to the director of the FBI.”

The senator points to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia as a Democrat who has joined him and other Republicans in a letter to the president demanding that no refugee related to the Syria crisis be admitted unless there is “100 percent” assurance that they are not connected to the Islamic State terrorist organization.

Since the 9/11 attacks, about 784,000 refugees have been admitted to the US, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Of that entire group, three refugees have been arrested on terrorism charges, the institute’s Kathleen Newland told Monitor reporter Henry Gass.

“Might there be a problem in vetting some one person? Sure,” says Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia. “So then is the answer we’re not going to take any Syrians at all?”

Administration officials may have been candid about some vetting challenges, he says, but there are certainly a plentiful number of Syrians who don’t present such a challenge who could be helped and brought to the US. “This is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”

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