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Does the U.S. need tighter security checks on refugees?

The House overwhelmingly passed the American SAFE Act, which would likely force a pause on Syrian and Iraqi refugees by enforcing strict vetting. Meanwhile, some local governments have said they don't want Syrians fleeing war in their communities. Political director Lisa Desjardins reports and Judy Woodruff gets views from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Erol Kekic of Church World Service.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now the politics of refugees here at home.

    Politicians at all levels, from both parties, weighed in.

    Our political director, Lisa Desjardins reports.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Dominating the U.S. House of Representatives today was the refugee crisis that's been plaguing Europe for months.

  • MAN:

    The bill is passed.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    A bipartisan majority easily passed what's called the America SAFE Act. The bill doesn't mandate a pause for refugees, but it would likely force one by requiring that each Syrian or Iraqi refugee get a background check from the FBI.

    That's something the FBI director has said may not be possible due to lack of data from the region. Then the FBI director, director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security would personally need to sign off on each refugee.

    In the eyes of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the bill fills gaps in a dangerously weak vetting process.

    REP. PAUL RYAN, Speaker of the House: Our own law enforcement experts are telling us that they don't have confidence that they can detect or block, with the current standards in place, that ISIL or ISIS is not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stressed humanitarian concerns.

  • REP. NANCY PELOSI, House Minority Leader:

    Families in Syria and Iraq are desperately trying to escape ISIS' gruesome campaign of torture, rape, and violence, and terror of the Assad regime. The Republican bill before the House today severely handicaps the refugee settlement of the future in our country.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    But it may be reaction without consequence. The White House has already vowed to veto and the bill, and it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where Democrats today proposed a different approach, toughen requirements for visitors from friendly countries, who can arrive with little vetting and no visa now.

    SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), New York: The visa waiver program has many, many more people going through it, millions. It takes virtually no time, as opposed to 18 months to 24 months, and there is much less vetting. We need to really tighten up that program.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    The political waves continued to the local level. The Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, joined dozens of mostly Republican governors in opposing the resettlement of refugees in their communities.

    DAVID BOWERS (D), Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia: I have no opposition to American involvement in assisting the refugees. I just don't think it's time to bring them over here.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    But just a few hours' drive from Roanoke, in Arlington County, Virginia, they're keeping out the welcome mat.

  • J. WALTER TEJADA, Vice Chairman, Arlington County Board:

    We have an obligation to make sure that people from all walks of life that live in our community, and in our community, there are folks who speak over 100 languages, that they feel welcomed.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Local governments are weighing in, even though they lack the legal authority to direct the process.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Lisa joins me now from our newsroom.

    So, Lisa, it looks like at this point none of these Republican plans to put more limits on the refugees coming in can get around a presidential veto. So, what's their strategy around that?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's correct.

    There are a couple of strategies. But I think, in the end, the best chance for Republicans, they feel right now, is to actually leverage the next big fiscal crisis. And it's not far away, Judy. December 11 is when funding for most of the federal government runs out again.

    And some Republicans are talking about attaching to the budget bill a — potentially be called the omnibus budget bill — some of these measures that would limit refugees or force a pause on the flow of refugees. Now, of course, Judy, that brings us to a standoff situation with the White House.

    And it's not clear how the White House would react to that, whether either side would allow or shut down the government over this major national security issue. The president has said he would veto the bill that the House passed today, based on the idea that he says it actually takes resources away from where they're needed and it would overwhelm the system.

    In addition, the FBI director today, Judy, said that he doesn't think this bill is a good idea either. Now, one other note. This might not be the — the omnibus bill and spending might not be the only issue. Rand Paul is currently proposing his own bill to limit refugee flow. And he right now is threatening to hold up a transportation and housing bill over that issue as well.

    So this is ricocheting across many issues on the Hill.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, we thank you for that reporting.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    You got it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For more on the debate over refugee resettlement, I'm joined by Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly. He was one of 47 Democrats who voted to tighten control of refugees. And Erol Kekic, he is executive director of the Immigration and Refugee Program for Church World Service. It's an organization that provides placement and assistance to refugees around the world.

    We welcome you both.

    So, Congressman Connolly, let me start with you.

    Why did you join with the Republicans to vote for this legislation proposal to tighten restrictions on these refugees from Syria and Iraq?

    REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), Virginia: Well, the tightening has to do with certification.

    And the bill essentially requires three government officials, the head of the FBI, the head of the DNI, and the head of Homeland Security, to certify that the refugees being allowed in the country are in fact not terrorists, that they have been vetted.

    Now, that adds an extra layer of bureaucratic review, but that's what it does. It doesn't stop the program. It doesn't even have a pause by statute. It doesn't finger a particular ethnic group. It doesn't — it's not Islamophobic, contrary to the rhetoric, unfortunately, of the Republican presidential candidates and the governors, which I find repugnant.

    And it allows the refugee program to continue. Now, it is a bureaucratic burden, but it seems to me it does the least amount of harm under the current circumstances, where Americans want some reassurance that we're not unwittingly letting people into the country who could do us harm.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But just very quickly, it's not just the Republicans making one argument. It's the argument from the president, who said this is hysteria. It's over what he calls widows and orphans, older people and very young children. And he said it does basically shut down the refugee program.

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    Well, I don't think that he read this bill. I think he was reacting to the earlier wave of demagoguery and Islamophobia and nativism coming out of Republican presidential candidates and the Republican governors.

    And I agree with the president. But this bill doesn't do that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    All right, let me turn to Erol Kekic.

    Your organization, as we understand it, works with several other organizations. You have got something like 400 offices around the country, 49 states. My question is, what do you make of these efforts? You have been working with these refugees for years and years. What do you make of this effort today in the Congress?

  • EROL KEKIC, Church World Service:

    Well, we're certainly rather disappointed that the elected officials have succumbed to this mass hysteria that has been spewing over the airways over the last four or five days.

    Even the president of France, whose country has been under this horrible attack, has actually come forward and said that, despite this, they will still accept 30 refugees over the next — 30,000 refugees over the next two years.

    And, at the same time, here we are in the United States, where we had this orderly program, when we had refugees vetted by a number of intelligence and security agencies, falling for this hysteria, trying to prevent people from come into our midst. This is just repugnant and it's, frankly, disgusting.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, I think you heard Congressman Connolly say it's merely an effort to tighten up the scrutiny that already exists.

  • EROL KEKIC:

    Refugees are already the most scrutinized group of travelers ever to enter the United States of America. They go through an extensive process of vetting that is done by the most advanced agencies we have in the U.S. government.

    Now, if you can't trust the U.S. government to do something, that's a different story. But we are confident that the U.S. government has put in placed adequate measures to screen and screen, and screen then again, refugees who are coming through the program.

    These people are people on whom we have biometric information, people for whom we have background information, people who have been seen by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees before they ever get to the system that we have today. People have been seen by the Departments of Homeland Security, Departments of State, Defense and a number of other agencies.

    So, to focus on this particular group, instead of all of these other groups of travelers that are coming to the U.S., is simply a waste of time and, frankly, resources.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Congressman Connolly, you're hearing him saying it is already a very thorough vetting process that is in place right now.

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    And, indeed, it is.

    I believe Mike McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Speaker Ryan put together bill to allow some ventilation that does very little harm.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What do you mean ventilation?

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    Because there is a demand in the country for, prove to us we're protected, prove to us we're secure.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Are you hearing that from your own constituents?

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    Oh, of course. I think all of us are.

    And I just — I have enormous respect for the work of the gentleman you just interviewed. I myself have a refugee background. And I have called for expanding Syrian refugees coming into the United States.

    This is a humanitarian crisis. And the biggest recruitment opportunity for ISIS is refugees camps that are left untended. But it's a balancing act here. This legislation isn't what the gentleman just described.

    Read the bill. It doesn't stop the program. It doesn't prevent refugees from coming in. He's correct that we have a very robust vetting system now. This adds one more layer. And it seems to me that, if this were to become law, we could work it out, so that it's incorporated into existing procedures and protocols.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Erol Kekic, what is the harm done if additional scrutiny is applied to these refugees in this particular time after these Paris attacks?

  • EROL KEKIC:

    Refugees languish in refugee camps in urban situations for years on end ever before — before they're ever referred to this program.

    Then they go through this extensive process, which takes anywhere between one and three years. I have been hearing this 18 to 24 months. In reality, actually, the process takes more than three years.

    And if we add an additional layer to this system here, are we trying to really age people out of the system before we ever resettle them? We can't have this debate while refugees wait in refugee camps. The winter is coming. And we do not have enough money to support them in those situations. We need to do more.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What about the humanitarian aspect of this, Congressman Connolly?

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    Well, 98 percent of refugees that have been allowed into the country from Syria and Iraq are elderly women and children, 98 percent. Do anyone really believe that an extra certification just to make sure is going to somehow exclude that 98 percent? I don't think so.

    I think that we're worried about…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But won't they be affected?

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    Well, they could be. And we want to make sure that that doesn't happen.

    But, again, the question was, are we going to respond in any fashion or not to the tragedy that just occurred in Europe, or are we going to declare everything is fine here, and we're unwilling to even look at an extra certification to make doubly sure?

    I came down on the latter side because I heard from the White House this morning, and their argument against it was essentially we don't have enough staff to make that happen.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, let me back to you, finally, Mr. Kekic.

    What are the consequences if this — right now, the president is saying he will veto it. The Senate — there is no indication the Senate will pass it. But it has passed the House of Representatives. If it were to become law, what would the consequence be?

  • EROL KEKIC:

    We're really concerned that this additional layer would actually mess up the system that already exists. So, the pre-checks and clearances, they all have expiration dates. All of this will go back to the beginning of the system and will add two, three, four years to the actual system that already exists.

    I don't see a benefit in that at all.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Erol Kekic with Church World Service, Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, we thank you both.

  • REP. GERRY CONNOLLY:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • EROL KEKIC:

    Thank you.

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