House lawmakers on Thursday forcefully criticized what they see as flaws in the Obama administration's plan to admit thousands of Syrian refugees to the U.S. — a tense showdown unfolded just hours before they prepared to vote on a measure that would sharply increase security screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
"What I'm really afraid of is a foreign policy that creates more widows and orphans," Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said on Thursday in a direct retort to President Barack Obama's comments earlier this week that those who want to refuse refugees entry to the U.S. are "scared of widows and three-year-old orphans."
A growing chorus of lawmakers and governors are deeply critical of the Obama administration's plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees to America in the next fiscal year in an effort to help alleviate the surge of thousands of people fleeing war torn African and Middle Eastern nations.
At least 31 governors either oppose, refuse, or want to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their state — either permanently or until after a security review.
The House bill aims to strengthen background checks of any refugee who spent time in Syria or Iraq after March 1, 2011. The White House has said the president will veto the bill if it crosses his desk.
A recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll found that 56% of Americans disapprove of allowing more migrants fleeing violence in Syria and other nations into the country, while 41% approve, The issue divides sharply across party lines with about 8 in 10 Republicans disapprove of accepting more Syrian refugees and Nearly two thirds of Democrats support the president's policy. more independents disapprove (59%) than approve (40%).
As they have all week in conversations with lawmakers on the Hill, governors and with the media, members of the Obama administration sought to assuage concerns about plans to resettle Syrian refugees. Anne Richard, assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration underscored that once they have been vetted, refugees are tracked for three months by authorities.
Some lawmakers on the Hill voiced dismay at the time period.
"They're not treated differently than other refugees. Syrians are less of a threat, actually, because they've fled their country. They've voted with their feet," Richard said.
"Let me stop you there real quick," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.
Smith pointed to previous testimony from FBI Director James Comey citing concerns over not having as much information as the agency would like on refugees.
"Don't you think Syrian refugees might someday become terrorists," Smith asked.
"I think the odds of a refugee being a terrorist is very, very small," Richard said. "But that doesn't stop us from focusing our program to make sure nobody comes in who might be a terrorist."