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House Speaker Paul Ryan, joined by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, left, meets with reporters on Capitol Hill, Nov. 17, 2015, following a GOP strategy session. (Photo: AP)

House Speaker Paul Ryan, joined by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, left, meets with reporters on Capitol Hill, Nov. 17, 2015, following a GOP strategy session. (Photo: AP)

'Wrong Side of History': Outrage as US Congress Moves to Block Syrian Refugees

Lawmakers spew xenophobic rhetoric just days after governors levy threats to keep out those fleeing war

Sarah Lazare

The xenophobic rhetoric that erupted on the state level in the U.S. in the immediate wake of the Paris attacks is now taking the national stage, where Republicans and some Democrats in Congress are attempting to rush through legislation before the Thanksgiving recess that would block Syrians fleeing war from taking refuge in the United States.

The anti-Syrian hysteria among lawmakers has been criticized as racist, Islamophobic, and deeply inhumane—invoking the U.S. legacies of the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion act.

In both the House and Senate this week, politicians are brazenly calling for a halt to President Barack Obama's stated plan to admit up to 10,000 additional Syrians—which has already been criticized as shamefully inadequate and cumbersome, particularly given the role of the United States in driving the crisis.

Newly-minted House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared at a press conference on Tuesday that "we cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population."

Ryan said he will ask the House to hold a vote on a bill to halt the program before the break.

Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who leads the counter-terrorism task force, said Tuesday that the House will, indeed, vote Thursday on a piece of legislation spearheaded by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) that would require such extensive FBI background checks that Syrians would be effectively barred from admittance to the country.

"The vetting process now in place is already a dreadful maze—a Rubik's Cube of bureaucracies practically guaranteeing that few Syrians will ever set foot on our shores," James Jennings, president of Conscience International, said in a press statement on Wednesday. "The process takes up to three years and requires 21 steps with numerous agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, all required to sign off."

The push is not just a Republican effort. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have both called for Obama to shut out refugees.

Some politicians are not hiding their anti-Muslim motives. GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) told Fox News on Saturday that Syrian Muslim refugees should be sent to "majority-Muslim countries" instead of being welcomed to the United States. "On the other hand," he added, "Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them."

And on Sunday, 2016 Republican candidate Jeb Bush said, "I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore." When asked how he would identify Christian Syrians, Bush replied: "You're a Christian—I mean, you can prove you're a Christian. You can't prove it, then, you know, you err on the side of caution."

These comments come despite the fact that, as author and professor Laila Lalami wrote earlier this week, "Muslims are the primary victims of ISIS, and its primary resisters. It is an insult to every one of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim victims of terrorism to lump them with the lunatics who commit terror."

"Punishing Syrian refugees for crimes committed by violent extremists is the last thing we should be doing now," Raed Jarrar, government relations manager for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams. "Although the U.S. has played a negative role in creating the conditions that have led to the ongoing disasters in the Middle East region, it has not lived up to its responsibilities to end the conflicts or assist refugees."

Speaking from a trip in Manila, Obama declared Tuesday: "When candidates say we should not admit 3-year-old orphans, that’s political posturing. When individuals say we should have religious tests, and only Christians, proven Christians, should be allowed, that’s offensive and contrary to American values."

While rights groups are asking for far more refugees to be welcomed than Obama is calling for, many also argue that a defeat to his plan would be a major step backwards. At least 80 humanitarian, labor, and civil rights groups on Tuesday released an open letter to Congress expressing support for Obama's plan. "Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly the kind of terror that unfolded on the streets of Paris," stated the missive, whose signatories include the ACLU and Farmworker Justice.

While the anti-Syrian bills will likely fail in Congress, McConnell and Ryan could be setting up a government shutdown showdown if they tie the bill to the government spending legislation, Vox reporter Dara Lind noted on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, over half of U.S. governors vowed this week to ban Syrian refugees from their states. While Obama administration officials say that these governors do not have the legal grounding to impose such bans, their pledges nonetheless send the message to Syrians they are not welcome—and could contribute to further blowback.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the Wisconsin-based social justice group Voces de la Frontera, said Tuesday that the state's governor Scott Walker, in levying such a threat, "has placed himself on the same side of history as those who turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Europe and interned Japanese Americans and German Americans during World War II."

Meanwhile, rights campaigners argue that welcoming in Syrians is the least the U.S. can do.

"Resettling Syrian refugees to the U.S. is only one of the many tools that should be utilized to respond to the crisis of displaced Syrians," said Jarrar. "Helping displaced Syrians while they're still in Syria and the region is an even more important method to respond. A comprehensive solution to displacement will happen through a political solution in Syria that would allow for voluntary repatriation."

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