The news that at least one of the perpetrators of Friday’s horrific terror attacks in Paris had entered Europe posing as a refugee from the civil war in Syria ignited debate Sunday over whether and how the U.S. should follow through with a pledge to accept some 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. One top Republican candidate said that the focus should be on allowing Christians into the country.
The attacks, which killed 129 people and wounded 352 more in various public spaces around Paris, are believed to be the work of the terror group ISIS, which currently controls parts of Iraq and Syria.
A wave of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting in their home country has been overwhelming Europe this year, and the U.S. promise to take in thousands of refugees came in response to please for other nations to offer assistance.
The overwhelming majority of the victims of the fighting in Syria are Muslim, but in two interviews Sunday morning, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is running for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, said that U.S. efforts to aid refugees should target only Christians.
“There are a lot of Christians in Syria that have no place now,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush said in an interview with CNN. “They’ll be either executed or imprisoned either by [Syrian dictator Bashar al-] Assad or by ISIS. We should focus our efforts as it relates to the refugees to the Christians that are being slaughtered.”
How are U.S. authorities supposed to determine who is and who is not Christian, asked host Jake Tapper.
“We do that all the time,” Bush replied. “It takes almost a year for a refugee to be processed into the United States. We need to be, obviously, very, very cautious.”
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press later Sunday morning, he repeated his call to aid Christians above others. The majority of refugees should be kept in “safe zones” in Syria, he said.
“I do think we have a responsibility to help with refugees, and I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore,” Bush said. “They’re being beheaded, they’re being executed by both sides, and I think we have a responsibility to help. But ultimately the best way to deal with refugees is to have a strategy to take out ISIS and Assad.”
While there is no question that ISIS has been persecuting Christians, the vast majority of the terror group’s victims in Iraq and Syria have actually been other Muslims who do not adhere to the strict version of Sunni Islam.
The White House has said emphatically that Friday’s attacks will not change the Obama administration’s plan to allow refugees from Syrian into the country. However, some in Washington are calling on the administration to stop allowing refugees into the country altogether.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Sunday that the Obama administration remains committed to taking in Syrian refugees.
“Some of these people are people who have suffered to horrors of war, they’re women, they’re orphans, they’re children who have suffered at the hands of ISIL,” Rhodes said, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the terror group. “We cannot close our doors to these people. We can focus on keeping terrorists out of the United States while having an open door to people who deserve a safe haven.”
He added, “With respect to refugees we have the most extensive security vetting that we have ever had to deal with Syrian refugees coming into the United States.”
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who chairs the counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Sunday that Rhodes’ claim was “untrue.”
“There’s virtually no vetting because there are no databases in Syria,” he said. “There are no government records. We don’t know who these people are. And when you meet with the people doing the vetting, they tell us that.”
He added, “They are rolling the dice here, and we know that ISIS wants to bring in terrorists with these refugees.”
King called for the refugee program to be suspended.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who chairs the full Homeland Security Committee said Sunday, “Frankly, I disagree with Ben Rhodes. I’ve been briefed by the FBI and Homeland Security, and they tell me this cannot be properly done. We don’t have the databases to vet them past.
McCaul said that he has been told that at least two of the Paris attackers were from Syria, adding that that makes him concerned about the safety of the refugee program.
“This causes a grave concern on the part of policymakers because we don’t want to be complicit with a program that could bring potential terrorists into the United States,” he said.
“I think Paris changes everything,” he said.