US House votes to suspend Syria refugee programme

A man holds a sign reading "Where is Humanity gone!!!!" as migrants and refugees cross the Greece-Macedonia border.
A man holds a sign reading "Where is Humanity gone!!!!" as migrants and refugees cross the Greece-Macedonia border.AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to ban Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States until tougher screening measures are in place, a move some slammed as giving in to xenophobia after the Paris attacks.

The Republican legislation, the first congressional response to last week’s attacks, passed overwhelmingly, 289 to 137, with nearly four dozen Democrats going against their president to support the measure.

The Bill now heads to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain, but it sets up a clash with President Barack Obama, who has threatened to veto the Bill and has criticised Republicans for “hysteria” and falling short of their humanitarian duty to take in the oppressed.

“Being generous does not mean we have to have a weak process for screening refugees,” number two House Republican Kevin McCarthy said before the Bill’s passage.

Thursday’s yes votes were one shy of the 290 needed to override a veto if every member votes.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said the measure would face fierce opposition from Senate Democrats.

“Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” Reid told reporters. “Next question?”

The Bill would prevent refugees from Iraq and Syria from reaching US shores until background checks are implemented as part of the screening process for each refugee.

It would also require directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence to personally certify that each new settler would not be a threat to national security.

Such a step, Democrats argue, would be a logistical nightmare for department heads who should be focusing more directly on stopping the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and other extremists.

Republicans defend the measure as a common-sense necessity after the Paris attacks that killed 129 people.

“Today is not the day to share our territory,” House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling told colleagues.

Democrats took to the House floor to argue that US refugee vetting is already the most stringent in the world, with investigations by several federal agencies taking an average 18 to 24 months.

House Democrat Jerrold Nadler expressed incredulity that lawmakers would seek to block women, children and seniors fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq from entering the country as refugees.

“We might as well take down the Statue of Liberty,” he said.

Others decried what they described as a knee-jerk reaction following the Paris attacks, one that hurts the very people who are fleeing extremism.

“Where is our mercy?” congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee pleaded.

The refugee issue has erupted into a political football on the campaign trail.

Several Republican presidential candidates have suggested that Christian refugees be prioritized over Muslims because Christians are facing greater discrimination and abuse at the hands of IS.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking in support of the legislation, insisted “it’s a security test, not a religious test.”

“If our law enforcement and our intelligence community cannot verify that each and every person is not a security threat, then they shouldn’t be allowed in,” he said.

Two dozen Republican US governors have also expressed opposition to Obama’s plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees on US soil over the next year.

The issue burst into ugly view this week when a newly-arrived, fully-vetted Syrian refugee family of three was rerouted out of Indiana when Governor Mike Pence objected to Syrian refugees settling in his state.

Rights groups warned that such positioning merely plays into the hands of extremist groups.

“Sowing fear of refugees is exactly the kind of response groups like ISIS are seeking,” said Iain Levine of Human Rights Watch.