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Democrats warn Syrian refugee ban would empower Islamic State

Congressional Democrats say discriminating against Muslims would harm war effort.
U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) leads a news conference in support of a proposed constitutional amendment for campaign finance reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington September 8, 2014. Also pictured is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR45FBO

Democrats in Congress are warning that slamming the door on Syrian refugees would hurt the US-led campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

The argument comes as Republican leaders and more than half of state governors have announced their opposition to President Barack Obama's plan to admit up to 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next 10 months. Democrats on Nov. 17 denounced a knee-jerk reaction to the attacks in Paris that they say would undermine US efforts to build an international coalition against IS and feed into the terrorist group's ideology of a civilization war between Muslims and the West.

“Refusing to help those who have passed repeated vettings will not keep us safer,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement. “It will fuel the terrorists' hateful anti-Western ideology.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a fellow New Mexico Democrat whose father fled Germany before World War II, slammed what he called the “anti-immigrant logic” of Syrian refugee opponents.

“Let's remember that the enemy in the current scenario is [IS], not the refugees who flee from their destruction,” Heinrich said in a statement. “We simply will not have the moral standing as a nation to lead in this international crisis if we ignore those who have lost everything at the hands of these barbaric terrorists.”

The top Democrat on the House intelligence panel agreed.

“Being a constructive part of the refugee crisis is vital to our coalition partners,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told Al-Monitor. “It's hard for us to call on them to do more in terms of refugees, in terms of the war effort, if we're unwilling to take on some component of this humanitarian crisis ourselves.”

And Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the United States would do well to avoid a “direct clash” with IS on ideological grounds by singling out only non-Muslims for resettlement.

“We want to make sure that we don't act like we're against all Muslims, and yes, if we say we won't take any, it aggravates it at least a little bit,” Smith told Al-Monitor. “There is a component [of the war effort], yes, that says it's not us versus the Muslims.”

The comments come as Republican leaders in the House and Senate have called for a moratorium on Syrian refugee resettlement after one of the Paris attackers was discovered to have entered the country posing as a refugee fleeing the war in Syria.

Newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tweeted Nov. 17 that Syrian refugees should be barred “unless we can be 100 percent confident that they are not here to do us harm” — an impossible metric.

“Our nation has always been welcoming,” Ryan said at a press conference. “But we cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

The House is expected to vote this week on legislation that would require the Obama administration to certify that none of the potential Syrian refugees being admitted pose a security threat.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also called for a “pause or moratorium” on the president's resettlement proposal Nov. 17. Meanwhile, at least 27 states have also objected to the president's proposal.

Administration officials counter that intense screening is already in place for Syrian refugees and point out that they are vetted over an 18- to 24-month period, negating the fear of a sudden deluge. They say that half of the fewer than 2,000 refugees accepted since the civil war broke out four years ago have been children, half have been women and a quarter have been older than 60.

Technically, they add, state leaders cannot stop the influx of refugees, who are granted residency status and a pathway toward citizenship. But State Department officials have been particularly frank about their reluctance to see a historically popular program turned into yet another partisan hot potato.

“We don't want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcomed,” a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters Nov. 17.

The issue has already become clearly partisan, however, for a variety of domestic political reasons.

Republican voters are more than twice as likely than Democrats to say they wouldn't vote for a Muslim president — 73% versus 35% — according to a September poll by Rasmussen Reports. And Republicans are also less likely to trust Obama's ability to keep the nation safe.

“The fact that a number of governors, charged with their states’ safety, have rejected Syrian refugees should be a signal to us all: Many Americans do not believe they can trust this administration to properly vet these refugees,” Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Committee, said in a statement. “The administration must address these legitimate concerns.”

The committee has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Nov. 19.

Some Republicans, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, have argued for only allowing Christians from Syria. A number of Democrats vigorously denounced that idea.

“It's against US principles — it's against universal principles — to discriminate,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Al-Monitor. “Any time the United States does something that is easily recognizable as wrong, it can affect the effectiveness of our international strategy.”

Cardin did raise concerns about US screening and visa-free travel from Europe. But he played down any direct link with the anti-IS effort.

“US leadership is not just because we have a strong military — it's because we have universal values that we stick up for, and part of that is dealing with a crisis such as the Syrian refugees,” he said. “I think it does deal with our credibility.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, resisted tying IS’ appeal to anything the United States does.

“I think [IS] is evil, and I think the people who would find [IS] appealing are frankly also evil,” Engel said. “They will recruit, they will find people, they will tell lies about the United States and the West. They will find a way to do it. I don't think anything that we do or don't do aids and abets them.”

But he also endorsed the refugee resettlement proposal, drawing parallels to the US reluctance to take in fleeing Jews in the 1930s. At the time, Jewish communities were widely perceived as hotbeds of dangerous political ideologies, including anarchism and Bolshevism.

“A lot of these people are victims of [IS],” Engel told Al-Monitor. “And if we're going to fight [IS], we need to help its victims.”

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