California Democrats running for re-election to Congress in what might be tough swing districts are scrambling to explain to liberal supporters their recent votes on Syrian refugee legislation, which seem more in keeping with Republican talking points.
Eight California Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Jim Costa of Fresno, broke with their party in the days after the Paris terror attacks last month to back a Republican measure the president says would halt resettlement of Syrian refugees.
Bera and Garamandi say the bill wouldn’t stop refugees and that their votes have been misunderstood.
“A lot of folks have contacted us wondering if my position was not to take refugees. I’ve explained that is not what this bill was about,” Bera said.
He said the bill is “just to let the public know that there is a vetting process and that the refugees we are accepting have gone through that vetting process and they don’t pose a security risk.”
Debra DeBondt, who leads a Sacramento nonprofit agency that helps resettle refugees, said, though, that blocking Syrian and Iraqi refugees was exactly what the bill would accomplish.
The legislation would forbid refugees from Syria and Iraq from entering the U.S. unless the heads of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the director of national intelligence, personally certify that each individual refugee does not pose a threat.
“That would really bring the program for Syrians and also Iraqis to a grinding halt,” said DeBondt, CEO of Opening Doors, which has helped five Syrian refugee families settle in the capital area. “And that would be so sad.”
All eight House Democrats from California who voted for the Republican bill are pro-immigration and support a pathway to citizenship. But all are running in potentially competitive swing districts where Syrian refugees might be a potent Republican campaign issue.
Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said no politician wanted to open himself or herself up to allegations of being soft on terror – particularly those in districts where Republicans might launch a credible challenge.
“If it looks like you’re facing a competitive election, you cross party lines,” Schnur said.
Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman, who worked for Bera’s opponent in the last election, said he didn’t think California Democrats who’d voted for the bill were just playing politics.
“It’s this combination of political pressure – they could be vulnerable in their districts,” he said. “But also the fact it was a reasonable policy. It wasn’t some kind of crazy Trump doctrine.”
Kari Hong, an expert in immigration law at Boston College Law School, said that while she supports the bill in theory, it “is not going to add that much more safety and is just going to slow down the process. ... What people don’t realize is that the existing refugee law is very aggressive toward rooting out people who support terrorism.”
Laws governing the migration of foreigners to the U.S. are under heavy scrutiny after Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik, who came to the country under a fiancée visa, killed 14 people in San Bernardino earlier this month along with her American husband, Syed Rizwan Farook.
Hong said the vetting process that refugees must go through to enter the U.S. was “so much more extensive” than the process for the fiancée visa that Malik used.
Costa, the Fresno Democrat who supported the Syrian refugee bill, defended the Republican measure as starting a “much-needed conversation to develop a long-term comprehensive plan so we can properly screen individuals who travel to or are seeking safety in the United States.”
“It is critical that we protect the American public from those who intend to do us harm, while not unduly delaying the refugee resettlement process for those who are fleeing terrorism in their own countries,” Costa said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced plans to stop the Syrian refugee bill from becoming law, saying America’s security problem is “not with refugees.” President Barack Obama called the bill an attack on his plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. in the next year.
“This legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis,” the president said in a statement.
Obama said Syrian and Iraqi refugees were already required to go through an extensive vetting process conducted by multiple federal intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies. Obama administration officials say it takes an average of 18 to 24 months before a refugee is approved and that of the refugees admitted to the country so far, half are children and just 2 percent of them are single men of combat age.
Bera, who narrowly won election last year, faces what might be an especially strong Republican challenge next year from Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who is making immigration his top issue.
Bera said the challenge from Jones in a swing district didn’t have anything to do with his refugee vote. He said the Obama administration had failed to explain why it was such a problem to have the heads of the three federal agencies certify that the refugees weren’t a threat before they were let into the country.
Bera said he supported refugees and wanted more money for federal agencies that screened them and a faster vetting process for the most vulnerable.
“Why is it taking 18 to 24 months to vet a 3-year-old orphan?” he asked.
Bera’s vote for the refugee bill puts him in the minority among California Democrats in the House, 31 of whom opposed the measure. One of them, Rep. Brad Sherman, said it would “consume all of the working hours” of the nation’s three top national security officials if they were to vouch for each Syrian and Iraqi refugee seeking to enter the U.S.
Garamendi, the Walnut Grove Democrat who supported the bill, said the bill’s impact on the refugee program was being overblown by both sides.
“It does not delay, it does not stop, does not do anything more than what is already done and holds these folks responsible for it being done properly,” Garamendi said.
Garamendi said the bill had become a national controversy but was far less important than issues such as tightening the program that allows foreign travelers from 38 allied nations to visit the U.S. without visas.
“The least likely way a terrorist will arrive in the United States is as a refugee, and the most likely way they would get caught is as a refugee,” he said.