US House passes legislation to pause Syrian refugee programme

Washington: Republican-dominated US House of Representatives today overwhelmingly voted to bar Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the US unless they pass strict background checks in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, despite a threat by President Barack Obama to veto the bill.

The bill, which seeks to impose more stringent security provisions on already robust screening of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, was voted 289 in favour to 137 opposed.

It’s a major setback for the Obama administration, because the US President was opposed to such a move and also because a large block of Democratic lawmakers voted in favour of the bill, which now needs to be passed by the Senate.

Should it pass the upper chamber, the White House has said Obama would veto the bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said the bill won’t make it to Obama’s desk.

“The first duty of our government is to keep the American people safe. If our law enforcement and intelligence community cannot verify that each and every person coming here is not a security threat, then they shouldn’t be allowed in,” Ryan, who was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, said.

“It’s a security test, not a religious test. This reflects our values. This reflects our responsibilities,” he said.

Ryan also referred to recent statements by US Secretary for Homeland Security Jeh Johnson about refugees from Syria.

“We know that organisations like ISIL might like to exploit this program. The bad news is that there is no risk- free process,” Johnson said, using another acronym for the IS.

“There is risk associated with bringing anybody in from the outside, but especially from a conflict zone like Syria. My concern is that there are certain gaps I don’t want to talk about publicly in the data available to us,” FBI Director James Comey has told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing.

“Our own law enforcement experts are telling us 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. This is an urgent matter and that is why we’re dealing with this urgently,” Ryan said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said that the Syrian refugee bill sends “the complete wrong” message.

“This sends a message to the world that — that is — does not improve our safety. A piece of legislation is more than to wits, to woos, and the various provisions. It’s a message to the world about our country, and we have a responsibility to keep the American people safe. It’s the oath of office we take. Count me as a lioness. Anybody comes near my cubs, you’re dead,” she said.

However, Ryan described this as “an important first step.” “But we need to do more. Not just about the refugees, but in the fight against ISIS,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the US House passage of the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015. Karin Johanson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office described this as an “un-American” bill.

“Supporters of this bill want us to turn our backs on refugees who are seeking safe harbor from the very terrorism we all abhor. This is not leadership,” Johanson said.