House Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership—and his reputation for conservative pragmatism—is being put to an early test by the GOP’s determination to halt the flow of Syrian refugees because of purported fears that some ISIS killers may be among them. Ryan has come up with what he thinks may be a compromise between voices calling to end Syrian refugee migration, and the administration’s plan to admit at least 10,000 more. But it indulges the fear-mongers and is unlikely to satisfy them anyway.
So far the new speaker has framed his approach as a “pause,” but his rhetoric tracked that of the 30 governors, all but one Republican, who say they won’t take in the Syrians fleeing violence at home (though they have absolutely no say in the matter.) “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry so we think the prudent, 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,” he said Tuesday. He promised the House would vote on a bill to address the problem this week.
I think Ryan’s intellect is over-rated in the Beltway—the numbers in his reverse–Robin Hood budgets never add up—but he is certainly smart enough to know that refugees already go through a tougher vetting process than anyone else who enters the United States. It includes interviews, fingerprinting, biometric testing, and extensive searches to domestic and foreign databases tracking terror groups to look for connections. Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner recently called it “the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States”—and he’s right. So what will Ryan’s party propose?
On Wednesday, in his first “one-minute speech” on the House floor, Ryan promised to introduce a bill Thursday that would “pause” refugee admission “until we can be certain beyond any doubt that those coming here are not a threat.” House Republicans including North Carolina Representative Richard Hudson and California’s Devon Nunes have proposed “a new certification process” whereby the federal government would somehow guarantee that refugees have no ISIS ties. “We will not have a religious test—only a security test,” he said. But while Ryan promised “a new standard of verification,” he did not spell out what that would include.
The far right is already railing against the plan. Daniel Horowitz at the Conservative Review says it “would do absolutely nothing to stop or defund refugee resettlement…. It calls for the administration to certify that any refugees brought here from Iraq and Syria are not terrorists. As long as Obama says they are not terrorists he can bring in as many as he wants.” A version of the bill under consideration reportedly requires the FBI director to approve the vetting.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus are demanding to stop the refugee resettlement by attaching riders to the omnibus budget bill that has to pass in the next few weeks to keep the government open. “There will be a big push to put some limitation on to the omnibus,” Representative John Fleming, R-LA, says. Alabama Representative Mo Brooks says that’s the “only guaranteed path to success” in making sure ISIS doesn’t slip in through the refugee resettlement program.
Of course that could lead to a government shutdown, since Obama is unlikely to sign a bill defunding a program he fervently supports, more so in recent days. So far Ryan hasn’t ruled out using the budget process to halt the refugee flow, telling radio host and conservative ideologue Bill Bennett on Tuesday that cutting off refugee-resettlement funds is on the table. When Breitbart.com called to confirm that, Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said, “We’ll be looking at all options for keeping America safe.”
Ryan can’t want a shutdown, but by feeding the base’s paranoia about ISIS-affiliated refugees, he is playing with fire, and he knows it. President Obama has only tough words for the GOP on this issue, and he’s correct. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate,” Obama said 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.”
Of course, conservatives are howling over Obama’s slap. Their reaction makes me think about this short column by Kevin Drum, warning progressives not to “mock” many Americans’ fears of ISIS slipping in among Syrian refugees. He’s right that the left often assumes a posture of sneering superiority over “low-information” voters, which can make it hard to have a dialogue that could lead to actual solutions to our problems. Certainly, ISIS is a real problem—even if ISIS fighters sneaking into the country past our rigorous refugee-screening process is not—and Americans’ fears are real too.
If I’m sneering, and sometimes it’s hard to avoid it, it’s not at some people’s genuine fear, but at the way the GOP exploits it time and again. Remember last fall’s Ebola “crisis,” ready-made for the 2014 midterms, and the demand for “travel bans” from affected African countries? That ended quietly, shortly after the election wiped out Democrats. Or how about the Central American child -refugee crisis earlier that same year, in which Republicans claimed that hordes of diseased and dangerous young people, including gang members, were crossing the border disguised as refugees. That found quiet resolution, too, although it’s likely that many of the young migrants were detained and deported back to dangerous homes, or turned back before they got here, thanks to a tough Mexican crackdown.
The GOP consistently plays on reasonable fears by people who maybe don’t have a lot of time to research how Ebola spreads, or the demographics of Central American child-refugee patterns, or the evidence that Syrian refugees are actually fleeing ISIS, not seeking to join it. It’s hard not to sneer, and worse. It may be that the president will have to play along with a GOP plan to develop “a new certification process” to make sure the refugees aren’t ISIS members, when in fact we already have one. But even that may not be enough.
Meanwhile French President François Hollande—whom Ryan praised for calling Friday’s ISIS attack “an act of war”—has announced that his country will take in additional 30,000 Syrian refugees. “Life must go on,” the French leader declared. Ryan admires Hollande’s toughness; if only he aspired to his common sense and compassion. But the modern GOP is built entirely on fear, and so life here goes on, and the GOP goes on fear-mongering.