WASHINGTON Republican lawmakers defied President Barack Obama on Wednesday and set out plans to tighten screening of Syrian refugees following last week’s Paris attacks, in a political fight that challenges America’s view of itself as a refuge for downtrodden immigrants.
Concerned about possible attacks in the United States after Islamic State killed 129 people in the French capital on Friday, the Republican chairman of a U.S. House of Representatives security panel proposed additional scrutiny of refugees fleeing Syria or Iraq seeking to enter the United States.
Reports that at least one of the Paris attackers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece prompted several Western countries to begin to question their willingness to take in refugees.
Under Republican-backed legislation introduced in the House, no refugee from war-torn countries Iraq and Syria could enter the United States until top-level American officials assure Congress that they do not imperil national security.
Americans are “uneasy and unsettled” over the events in Paris, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican.
“We are a compassionate nation. We always have been and we always will be. But we also must remember that our first priority is to protect the American people,” Ryan said.
Speaking at an Asia-Pacific summit in Manila, Obama accused Republicans of “hysteria and exaggeration of risk” in trying to make it more difficult for refugees to enter the United States.
“Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do,” Obama later wrote on Twitter.
Obama stood by a plan that the White House announced in September to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States within a year.
Refugees from the four-year-old civil war in Syria who are seeking U.S. entry already undergo a rigorous screening process that can take between 18 and 24 months, involving multiple U.S. security agencies.
The House is due to start debate on Thursday on a bill proposed by Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House’s Homeland Security Committee, that would make it even more difficult for those Syrians, as well as for Iraqi refugees.
Under the bill, top U.S. security officials – the Homeland Security secretary, the FBI director and the director of National Intelligence – would have to assure Congress that the refugees do not imperil national security.
McCaul also proposes to tighten a visa waiver program that allows citizens of participating countries, including many in Europe, to travel to the United States without a visa.
The Senate, where Republicans hold a smaller majority than in the House, would have to approve any legislation on refugees before it could take effect. Rhetoric there about the issue has been less heated than in the House.
Ryan said Republican efforts to heighten the screening of refugees will not discriminate against Muslims, who are in the vast majority in Syria and Iraq.
“We will not have a religious test, only a security test,” Ryan said in a speech on the House floor.
Some Republicans have said only Syrian Christians should be eligible for asylum in the United States.
The debate over refugees has challenged the idea that America is a nation always open to immigrants in trouble.
“We are, over our history, a country that’s made up of immigrants, sometimes some more welcome than others. These (Syrians) are, for the most part, people fleeing for their lives,” said Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who criticized Republican efforts to intensify scrutiny of refugees.
“I think as a Jew I have a certain perspective,” Schakowsky said, recounting the story of the St. Louis, a refugee ship turned away from Cuba and Florida in 1939 and sent back to Europe, where hundreds of its Jewish passengers were killed in the Holocaust.
The Paris attacks have hardened rhetoric on the U.S. presidential campaign trial.
Republican candidate Jeb Bush called for an increased U.S. troop presence on the ground in Iraq as part of a global coalition to take on Islamic State. His comments may lead to comparisons to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ordered by his brother, former President George W. Bush.
The California-based rock band Eagles of Death Metal, whose concert at Bataclan concert hall in Paris was turned into a bloodbath by gunmen opening fire on the audience, said its members have returned to the United States and suspended all further shows.