President Barack Obama said suggestions that the U.S. impose a religious test on Syrian refugees are “shameful” and un-American, lashing out at Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, who have called for accepting Christians from the region rather than Muslims.
“That’s not American. That’s not who we are,” Obama said, responding to a question at a news conference Monday at the Group of 20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. “We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
While Obama didn’t name names, it was clear who he was referring to. Cruz, whose father emigrated from Cuba, said yesterday in South Carolina there is no “meaningful risk” of Christian refugees from Syria committing terrorism acts. Bush told CNN the U.S. should take a limited number of refugees and focus on saving Christians.
“When I hear folks say that maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful,” Obama said.
The House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Republican Michael McCaul of Texas, demanded today that Obama suspend the admission of Syrian refugees. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, said the Immigration and Border Security subcommittee of his panel would hold a hearing on the refugee program on Thursday.
“We remain concerned that these resettlements are taking places without appropriate regard for the safety of the American people,” McCaul said in a letter to Obama. U.S. law enforcement authorities have told McCaul’s committee that the government lacks “on-the-ground intelligence necessary to thoroughly vet Syrian refugees seeking to resettle here,” McCaul wrote.
The flood of refugees fleeing Islamic State violence in Syria and Iraq has roiled Europe and spurred a debate in the U.S. It gained urgency when French authorities said one of the terrorists who launched deadly attacks in Paris on Friday may have entered Europe as a refugee via Greece.
“It is very important for us right now, particularly those who are in leadership, particularly those who have a platform and can be heard, not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us,” Obama said.
He praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for political courage in treating the refugee crisis as a moral obligation and said leaders of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon also are enduring a burden. Obama also said he was “proud” when former President George W. Bush insisted after the Sept. 11 attacks that the U.S. was not at war with Islam.
Refugees in U.S.
Even in the face of the Paris terror attacks and new fears that associates of the Islamic State terror group could infiltrate nations by posing as refugees, the president said that the U.S. will continue to be among the nations accepting refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.
“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said.
Obama announced in September that the U.S. would raise the number of refugees it accepts for settlement next year, including 10,000 from Syria. Those refugees are first screened by officials from the United Nations and organizations such as the Red Cross from among people who have fled to camps in neighboring countries. To be considered for U.S. admission, refugees usually must be deemed “vulnerable,” a designation that includes widowed women, unaccompanied children, political targets of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and those with life-threatening medical conditions. The screening process can take up to two years.
Between Oct. 1, 2011, and Nov. 10, the U.S. has taken in 2,131 Syrian refugees, with just over 1,800 of them arriving since the beginning of this January, according to the State Department. They have settled in Arizona, Arkansas and California.
Despite the administration’s assurances that any refugees would be thoroughly vetted, several of the Republican presidential candidates warned about letting any of them resettle in the U.S. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose parents also emigrated from Cuba, said the U.S. shouldn’t take more because they can’t be vetted well enough to address security concerns.
Donald Trump indicated he wants to expel current Syrian refugees and Ben Carson said taking in Syrian refugees is a “suspension of intellect.” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has called for sealing the border and issued an order blocking the state from taking in Syrian refugees.
Republican governors in Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Texas also have indicated they won’t accept Syrian refugees. Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent Obama a letterMonday asking him to halt the Syrian refugee program in the U.S., and wrote, “Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees — any one of whom could be connected to terrorism — being resettled in Texas.”
Obama said the political pressure to stop accepting refugees has picked up in Europe and in the U.S. It’s important that “we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism,” he said.
“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism,” Obama said. “They are parents, they are children, they are orphans.”