Christians Only? Debate Over Syrian Refugees Quickly Turns Toxic
Policy + Politics

Christians Only? Debate Over Syrian Refugees Quickly Turns Toxic

© Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

The public debate over how the U.S. should respond to terror attacks in Paris and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis quickly turned toxic in the past 24 hours. Two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination advocated a “Christians only” policy for the resettlement of displaced Syrians and governors lined up to declare that Syrians were not welcome in their states, prompting an angry reaction from President Obama.

The reaction against Syrian refugees is due in part to the suggestion that one of the Paris attackers, who are believed to have been affiliated with the terror group ISIS, was able to get into the European Union by posing as a refugee fleeing the violence of the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year and has promised to carefully screen them for ties to terror groups first.

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Lawmakers have said that they don’t believe the administration has the ability to do that effectively.

“You can have a thousand people come in and 999 of them are just poor people fleeing oppression and violence,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. “But one of them is an ISIS fighter — if that’s the case, you have a problem.”

He added, “There’s no way to vet that out. There’s no background check system in the world that allows us to find that out because who do you call in Syria to background check them?”

On Sunday, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who chairs the committee’s panel on counterterrorism and intelligence, said that law enforcement and intelligence sources have told them such background checks are ineffective.

Related: Bush — U.S. Should Only Accept ‘Christian’ Refugees from Syria

Speaking at the G-20 meeting he attended over the weekend in Turkey, President Obama pushed back hard against the idea that the U.S. should prevent Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S.

“As president, my first priority is the safety of the American people. And that's why even as we accept more refugees, including Syrians, we do so only after subjecting them to rigorous screening and security checks. We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves. That's what they're fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”

Obama also sharply rebuked politicians who “feed the dark impulse” to demonize entire cultures or religions because of the actions of a few.

“When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person who's fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that's shameful. That's not American, it's not who we are.”

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Obama’s remarks appeared to directly target Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has called for the U.S. to limit itself to accepting Christian refugees only, saying on Sunday, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror. If there were a group of radical Christians pledging to murder anyone who had a different religious view than they, we would have a different national security situation.”

Though Cruz is not the only GOP candidate to call for limiting immigration from Syria to Christians — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the same thing on Sunday — a big part of Cruz’s political biography is that his father escaped the repressive Castro regime in Cuba and found sanctuary in the U.S.

Obama continued, “It is good to remember that the United States does not have a religious test and we are a nation of many peoples of different faiths, which means that we show compassion to everybody. Those are the universal values we stand for.”

The president’s remarks, however, did little to stem the tide of governors issuing statements and signing orders designed to block any effort to resettle Syrian refugees in their states.

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By early afternoon on Monday, the governors of Alabama, Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi and Texas — all of whom are Republicans — had said that their states would not accept Syrian refugees. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, also a Republican, said that he would not support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state until he is satisfied with the process being used to screen them for ties to ISIS or other terror groups.

It is far from clear that the governors of U.S. states have the authority to block individual Syrians whom the federal government allows into the country from settling anywhere they please. However, they do have the ability to block state-level agencies from providing assistance to federal programs facilitating the resettlement of refugees.

A statement released by Texas Gov. Greg Abbot captured the general tone of the most of announcements: “Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees — any one of whom could be connected to terrorism — being resettled in Texas.”