Obama Says Debate on Syrian Refugees Feeds Anti-U.S. Propaganda

  • President criticizes those seeking to block Syrians from U.S.
  • Administration seeks to admit 10,000 refugees over a year

President Barack Obama said the increasingly rancorous U.S. debate on Syrian refugees feeds Islamic State propaganda that the U.S. and its European allies are at war with the Muslim world.

QuickTake Political Asylum

For the second time this week, Obama lashed out at lawmakers and U.S. governors, most of them Republicans, who are pushing to block the administration from allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the country.

Obama speaks in Manila, Nov. 18

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate,’’ Obama said at a news conference Wednesday morning in the Philippines, using an acronym for the extremist group blamed for the terrorist attack in Paris last Friday and the downing of a Russian jetliner last month.

The administration is undertaking a campaign to assure lawmakers and the public that it can keep terrorists from mixing with incoming Syrian refugees. While most of the opposition has come from Republicans, the White House plan was dealt a blow Tuesday when New York’s Charles Schumer, a top Senate Democrat, voiced reservations about the resettlement program.

The administration is conducting a multi-day blitz of briefings and calls with the media, lawmakers, governors and mayors from across the country who have questions about the refugee screening process. Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Amy Pope said in a blog post Tuesday that officials were examining “options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified.”

Lawmakers raised alarm after revelations that one of the Islamic State extremists who staged attacks in Paris last week, killing at least 129 people, may have entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee.

‘A Pause’

Schumer, poised to take over as the Senate’s Democratic leader in 2017, said “a pause may be necessary” on the entry of Syrians fleeing civil war. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both Republicans, earlier called on the administration to put those plans on hold. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said the chamber plans to vote Thursday on legislation that would block Syrian refugees from entering the country unless four top U.S. law-enforcement and national security officials affirm to Congress that none of them is a security threat. The FBI director also would have to certify that background checks were completed for all refugees. The measure will be based on one offered by Representative Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican.

"This is just a start" for legislative action on terrorism and refugees, McCarthy told reporters before a private security briefing for House members.

House members received the classified briefing Tuesday from administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey.

Representative Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, said he was disappointed in what he heard.

"I’m leaving this briefing far less comfortable than I was going in," said Salmon, who questioned the administration’s ability to make sure incoming refugees are vetted to keep out potential terrorists.

Governors’ Objections

By Tuesday, almost a third of the nation’s governors -- all but one of them Republican -- had said they would refuse to resettle refugees or called on the Obama administration not to admit them without a review of vetting procedures. Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Republican presidential contenders, are among the 31 governors who called for some type of action on Syrian refugees.

A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said Tuesday that governors can’t block refugees from entering their states. But local governments do play a consultative role, and state governments sometimes provide benefits to those resettling in the U.S.

Obama has said he wants the U.S. to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The U.S. is already selective, usually considering for resettlement only refugees deemed “vulnerable,” such as widows, unaccompanied children or political enemies of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Candidates are interviewed in person at refugee camps bordering Syria and the vetting requires nearly two years on average and only around 2 percent are single males of combat age, officials said.

The U.S. has resettled about 2,000 Syrian refugees, a fraction of the 4 million Syrian refugees worldwide who have registered with the United Nations since 2012. Of those in the U.S., Texas has received the most, followed by California, Michigan, Illinois and Arizona, according to State Department data.

As he did as a news conference in Antalya, Turkey, on Monday, Obama singled out the Republicans running for the party’s presidential nomination for particular scorn.

Without naming names, he said the candidates on the stump say that they’re so tough they would be “staring down’’ U.S. adversaries.

“Apparently they’re scared of widows and orphans,’’ Obama said. “First they were scared of the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re scared of 3-year-old orphans.’’

He also chided Congress for failing to act on his request for a formal authorization for the use of military force in Syria but now rushing to legislate limits on refugee quotas that are the duty of the executive branch.

“That’s their most constructive contribution?’’ he said.

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