WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday called for even tighter scrutiny of Syrian refugees fleeing to the United States as last week’s deadly Paris attacks recast America’s long-running debate over immigration and national security.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, worried about Islamist attacks following Friday’s killings of 129 people in France, threatened to suspend President Barack Obama’s efforts to allow 10,000 more Syrian refugees into the country.
Democrats also called for extremely close vetting of refugees from the four-year-old civil war in Syria in case they are linked to extremist groups like Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris killings.
The attacks shifted the spotlight in Washington to national security issues with the November 2016 presidential election campaign heating up and Obama in the final year of his presidency.
“This is a moment where it is better to be safe than sorry,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Ryan called for a pause in Obama’s program, announced in September, to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in a year. The number of Syrians destined for the United States is low compared to refugee figures in European countries such as Germany.
The Syrian refugee issue has challenged America’s image of itself as a nation which welcomes downtrodden immigrants, with some lawmakers suggesting all Syrians should be barred, or that Christian Syrians should be favored over Muslims.
Republican Senator John McCain on Tuesday backed scrupulous vetting but strongly opposed discriminating against Muslims.
“All of us are God’s children ... so I disagree with that assumption that only Christian children should be able to come to the United States,” he told reporters.
Both Republicans and Democrats have voiced fears that housing refugees from a conflict zone in the Middle East could eventually leave the United States open to attacks like those staged by al Qaeda in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should be “looking at the strongest possible vetting process for refugees coming into this country” to “make sure that terrorists cannot get into the United States through our refugee program.”
The current U.S. vetting process, which takes 18 to 24 months, is tighter than that in Europe, he said.
Other Western countries have begun to question their willingness to take in Syrian refugees after reports that at least one of the Paris gunmen passed through Greece in October.
The White House said it was continuing to look for ways to tighten screening for Syrian refugees, noting that people escaping the war-torn nation already undergo rigorous vetting.
Amy Pope, deputy homeland security adviser at the White House National Security Council, said in a blog post: “Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. We continue to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified.”
U.S. debate over Syrian refugees follows years of political fights over illegal immigration, most of it from Latin America.
Conservative Republicans running for the White House next year are offering competing plans to limit the number of illegal immigrants. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has threatened to deport the 11 million already in the United States.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush broke with rivals by saying he would support some Syrian refugees coming into the United States but stressed the screening must be tough to ensure no Islamic State militants enter the country.
The heads of several U.S. refugee advocacy and resettlement agencies on Tuesday called on governors to back down from efforts to close their states to new refugees from Syria.
Twenty-six mostly Republican governors say they are worried about people resettling in their states after fleeing Syria’s four-year-old civil war, citing concerns that some could be associated with Islamic State. Other U.S. governors have said Syrian refugees are welcome.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that of 785,000 refugees accepted since 2001, only 12 “were found to perhaps be problematic with respect to potential terror.”
But he told NBC that while screening is effective it will have to be increased and “will probably go slower and cost more money.”
Ryan did not offer details about proposed legislation to pause Obama’s Syrian refugee plan but said he had set up a task force of House Republicans to consider legislation “as quickly as possible.”
Several Republicans in both the House and the Senate are pushing to include a provision to block the U.S. resettlement of Syrians in a trillion-dollar budget bill that must be passed, and signed into law by Obama, by Dec. 11.
Others have proposed separate measures setting strict conditions on admitting Syrian refugees, such as requiring the FBI director to certify that refugees’ background checks have been completed, and an audit of the vetting process.
The Senate, where Republicans hold a smaller majority than in the House, would also have to approve any legislation on the refugees before it could take effect. Rhetoric there has been less heated than in the House.
A plan by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year ran into trouble on Monday as some provincial and municipal leaders said the timeline does not allow for enough security checks and is logistically impossible.
And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy has sparked debate.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Howard Goller and James Dalgleish