Two congressmen have introduced legislation offering a broad reform of the refugee resettlement program, which has brought more than 3 million refugees from the Third World and resettled them into more than 169 cities and towns since 1990.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., on Monday introduced the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act (H.R. 4731).
The bill reforms the refugee program by curbing fraud and strengthening public safety and national security. It also seeks to make the program, racked by charges of secrecy and unaccountability, more transparent.
The bill would give state and local governments the power to decide if refugees are to be resettled within their communities and gives Congress, not the president, the authority to set the overall refugee ceiling for each year. The House Judiciary Committee will mark up this legislation on Wednesday, March 16.
“Our bill makes common-sense reforms to improve and modernize the refugee program. It restores congressional power and respects the decisions of elected officials closest to the people,” said Labrador, who is vice chair of the subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. “Importantly, the bill gives Congress, rather than the president, authority to decide how many refugees to admit. It boosts protections against fraud and requires rejection of those guilty of serious crimes.
“The bill improves prospects for success by placing refugees in communities that have the infrastructure to support them and by giving priority to persecuted religious minorities. To continue America’s long history of welcoming those in need, we must restore confidence in the safeguards protecting our security.”
Since the Syrian civil war broke out nearly five years ago, the U.S. has taken in more than 2,600 Syrian refugees, but less than 3 percent of them have been Christians, who make up the most severely persecuted people group in the region. The U.S. also has a continuous pipeline of refugees coming from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Burma and Bhutan.
The initial selection of refugees bound for the U.S. is made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They are then screened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in cooperation with the FBI and State Department.
FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last year and said it was virtually impossible for the U.S. to screen refugees from failed states like Syria, where the U.S. has no access to reliable law enforcement records.
Refugees from Somalia were caught engaging in massive fraud several years ago when they made false claims about purported family members – who were not actually related to them – in order to get them to join them in the United States.
Goodlatte said the U.S. has a generous refugee program that has provided millions of people fleeing persecution with a safe haven.
“However, all too often we hear about fraud in the refugee program and bad actors seeking to exploit our kindness,” he said. “The American people have little say in the process since the president has the sole power to determine how many refugees come each year and where they are to be resettled in the United States.”
The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act makes meaningful reforms to curb fraud, strengthen national security and public safety, and restore integrity to the refugee program, which began in 1980, he said.
President Obama announced last fall he would boost the ceiling on foreign refugees allowed into the U.S. from 70,000 to 85,000 in fiscal 2016 and raise it again to 100,000 in 2017. Congress fully funded that level of resettlement under Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget.
The bill authored by Labrador and Goodlatte sets the annual refugee resettlement ceiling so that the people’s elected representatives in Congress, not the president, decide what that number should be. It also empowers state and local governments to decide whether or not refugee resettlement is best for their communities.
Co-sponsors of the bill are Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Doug Collins, R-Ga.
Refugee watchdog Ann Corcoran said she welcomes the legislation while at the same time she cannot help but question the motives of the Republicans in Congress who have done nothing up to now to stop Obama’s refugee program. They could have, for instance, gotten behind Rep. Brian Babin’s bill, which has been sitting buried in committee since last summer calling for a halt to all resettlement pending a full audit of the program.
“Does the Committee want to make sure that the earlier Babin bill is squashed?” Corcoran asked in her blog Tuesday.
“Are they trying to calm down citizens in their districts who are clamoring for governors (mostly Republican governors) to do something? In other words, is this a pat on your heads with a ‘don’t worry, go about your business, we will take care of you?'” she asked.
“And, let me ask you, do we really want this particular pro-donor class (big business establishment/Chamber of Commerce) Republican leadership making the determination about how many refugees are admitted anymore than say a Trump White House?” Corcoran added. “Do you trust Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Mitch (bring’em to Kentucky) McConnell to set levels?”
Key components of the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act are:
Authorizes Congress, not president, to set ceiling on refugees
The bill sets the refugee ceiling at 60,000 per year. It allows the President to recommend a revision of the ceiling number and Congress can choose to act on that recommendation. The bill prevents the president from admitting additional refugees without Congress’ approval.
Empowers state and local communities
Currently, states or localities that do not want refugees resettled within their communities have no recourse. The bill remedies this issue and prevents the resettlement of refugees in any state or locality that takes legislative or executive action disapproving resettlement within their jurisdiction.
Enhances integrity of refugee program and curbs fraud:
- It requires that when processing refugee applications from countries listed as “Countries of Particular Concern” in the annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, claims/applications that are based on religious persecution and are made by individuals who practice minority religions in such countries, are prioritized.
- The bill requires termination of refugee status if a resettled refugee returns to the country from which they fled, absent a change in country conditions.
- It requires the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to implement a fraudulent document detection program for refugee processing, including the placement of Fraud Detection and National Security officials at initial refugee screening, and the creation of a searchable database of scanned and categorized documents submitted by potential refugees at initial screening.
- It provides for regular security vetting of each admitted refugee until the refugee adjusts immigration status to lawful permanent resident.
Within one year of the bill becoming law, all U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) interviews, performed during USCIS circuit rides and done with the assistance of an interpreter, are to be recorded and DHS must review a random selection of 20% of the recordings to ensure that the interpreter correctly interpreted the interview. If an interpreter is found to have incorrectly interpreted the interview, the interpreter cannot serve as an interpreter for immigration purposes.
- The bill requires USCIS to review open source Internet postings, including social media, for each applicant.
- Strengthens public safety and national security:
- The bill prevents the Secretary of DHS from unilaterally waiving most grounds of inadmissibility, including criminal convictions, for refugees.
- It also prevents the DHS Secretary from waiving most grounds of inadmissibility and deportability, including criminal grounds, for refugees attempting to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident.
- The bill requires the Government Accountability Office to issue a report on the security of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (including the screening and processing procedures); the number of refugees who have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 2006; and the use of federally-funded benefit programs by refugees resettled in the United States.
Communities pushing back against reettlements
Political battles are raging right now in South Carolina, Texas, Minnesota and Montana, where citizens are organizing against plans by the federal government and its contractors to place Syrian refugees into their communities without their approval.
In South Carolina, it is Lutheran Services Carolinas and World Relief, a division of the National Association of Evangelicals, that are working with the government to place Muslim refugees in the state.
In Montana, it’s the International Rescue Committee and another group called WorldMontana that are planning to bring Syrian refugees into the Missoula and Helena areas.
About half-a-dozen counties in South Carolina and two county commissions in Montana have voted to send letters to the Obama administration saying they will not be welcoming Syrian refugees, citing economic issues and national security concerns.