Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I take this time as a Senator from Maryland, as well as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to talk about the bill we voted on earlier today–on the motion to proceed to the so-called SAFE Act dealing with Syrian refugees. I like to call it the fear act because I think it really is an act that is misguided.
I will start by saying that the world looks to the United States, and when there are tough problems, they look to our leadership. They know this country is prepared to step forward and provide the international leadership to deal with the toughest problems we face as a global community.
The bill I call the fear act would jeopardize America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time, it would jeopardize the U.S. leadership on humanitarian issues, and I think it would compromise U.S. security. Let me tell my colleagues why. We face the greatest crisis on refugees and displaced individuals since World War II. The number is about 60 million globally who are currently refugees or displaced. The largest numbers right now are coming out of Syria. Make no mistake about it–millions are coming out of Syria. They are escaping the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and gases and starvation policies. These are victims. These are people who are losing their lives because of the barbaric regime of President Assad. Our values are that we respond to those issues, that we act in a responsible way, that we help the international community to help those people who are trying to escape the persecutions of oppressive regimes.
The fear act would shut down the U.S. process of accepting Syrian refugees. Why do I say it would shut it down? Because it would require the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence–all three–to certify, on an individual basis, the ability of these individuals to meet our standards to come into the United States. That would require 100 certifications per day, 300 certifications total.
What else would they be doing? I hope the Director of the FBI is working to keep our country safe and more than just dealing with the Syrian refugees. This would cut down and eliminate our ability to accept Syrian refugees.
Let me cite some of the numbers. The United States has accepted 2,000 Syrian refugees. There are millions of Syrian refugees. The total number the President has talked about is 10,000–a small fraction of the total numbers who are being relocated under the Syrian refugee program. We look at the neighboring countries alone, what is being done in Jordan, what is being done in Lebanon, and look at what Europe is accepting.
We are taking a very small burden here, and it is individuals who do not pose a threat. I will explain that. Every one of us will do everything we can to make sure that our homeland is safe. I am prepared to do everything reasonable to make sure we keep Americans as safe as we possibly can from the threat of extremists.
So what do these Syrian refugees go through? By the way, there has not been a reported case of a Syrian refugee in regards to terrorism. What do they go through?
First, they are screened by the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations. They screen the individuals who are considered eligible to come to the United States. They go through that screening process. Then they are fingerprinted and go through a biometric check. They go through several layers of biographical and background screenings. They are individually interviewed by U.S. officials. It takes about 18 to 24 months. If you are a terrorist, you are not going to go through this.
It is up to the potential individual who will come to the United States as a refugee to establish that they are a refugee. That means they must establish that they have been a victim of the terrorist activities in order to be able to get to the United States. It is up to them to establish that burden. We don’t accept individuals who cannot establish that burden. This is not the target group that we should be concerned about.
The real threat to our homeland security–let’s take a look at others who come to this country. We already did this in the omnibus bill, but we know under the Visa Waiver Program there are individuals who hold passports of countries with which we have the Visa Waiver Program. That means they are countries that have relations with the United States, and we generally accept their visitors without a visa. Many of these countries have foreign fighters who have gone to the affected areas that could very well be involved in terrorist activities and then come back to the European country and come to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. Well, we took some action against that in last year’s bill. That was good. We need to continue to scrutinize that.
What we saw happen in California was that we had a spouse who didn’t come under a Syrian waiver program or a Syrian refugee program, but who came under other visa programs. That needs to be scrutinized. For people who come to America, we need to know that they are not connected to a terrorist organization.
But the greatest concern is the radicalization of Americans. We need to know why people do what they do. We need to have a better system to protect the homeland. Let’s focus on the real problem areas in our country.
If this bill were to be passed, it would actually make us less safe. It would affect our national security. Let me tell you the reason why. First, it would clearly diminish U.S. leadership. When we go and seek international support, particularly for our coalition against ISIL, our failure to be willing to take any of the Syrian refugees will certainly compromise America’s credibility and ability to lead internationally.
It will be used by ISIL as propaganda. Make no mistake about that. They understand that. This is what they are saying about America.
It is against our values. It makes us weaker as a nation.
It is for those reasons that we found that national security professionals from both parties, including Henry Kissinger, David Petraeus, Brent Scowcroft, and Michael Chertoff, all have come out in opposition on the grounds that it would undermine our security and benefit ISIL. These are professionals. They understand the risk factors.
What we should be doing is everything we can to protect us from the threat of ISIL. That means let’s figure out ways we can share intelligence information among all of our willing partners. Let’s provide the leadership, particularly in those countries in which ISIL can operate, so that the governments represent all the communities, so that there is not a void where the Sunni minority population feels that their only safety is with ISIL.
Let’s make sure we cut off all the financial support for ISIL, including their oil abilities and the transport of oil. This is what the Obama administration is doing. Let’s make sure we do cut off any opportunities to expand their capacity.
Let’s deal with foreign fighters–people who come from Western countries who go to these areas and train. Let’s make sure that we know where they are, and when they try to come back into one of the Western countries, that they are apprehended and tried because of their affiliation with terrorists.
Let’s help countries such as Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon that are taking on the extreme burdens of the refugees so they can deal with their own crises that have been exaggerated because of the Syrian conflict and ISIL formation.
In other words, let us work in a coordinated way to root out the main cause of the terrorist activities; that is, ISIL’s ability to attract supporters and to gain territory. Let’s take away that territory, coordinate our airstrikes, and work with the local forces on the ground. All of that should be done, and we need to work together on that.
To concentrate on the few thousand Syrian refugees who have gone through this country’s strictest vetting process makes little sense and will not keep us safer, but, as I indicated before, will actually compromise our national security.
In closing, let me state what makes this Nation the great Nation that it is. I think each of us knows that we are living in a special country–a country that has stood up for freedom, a country that has been looked upon as a beacon of hope around the world. Many of our parents and grandparents came from other countries in order to settle in this country because of its opportunity.
I am a student of history, not just because it is an effective, factual counterpart to the bluster of politicians and social media accounts. History can be a touchstone to remind us of who we are and a lens through which we can see who we are. Throughout our history, we have recognized that even in times of war we were fighting leaders of authoritarian regimes and not their victims. From 1945 to 1952, we resettled 400,000 displaced persons from Nazi-controlled areas in Europe. In the fall of Saigon in 1997, the United States rescued 883,000-plus refugees who fled Vietnam, a country with which we had been in a state of undeclared war that claimed 58,000 American lives. Between 1970 and 1991, we resettled 200,000 Jews from the Soviet Union, the very government which posed the greatest security threat the United States has ever known. In addition, we have resettled hundreds of thousands of refugees from Cuba and other countries behind the Iron Curtain.
This Republican bill we considered today dishonors our proud history of providing a safe haven. History can also be harsh and unsentimental. This bill risks repeating mistakes of the past when the United States tragically turned away Jewish refugees in World War II.
After the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old who was washed up on the beach, was published in the news media, the American people opened their hearts to the Syrian people. The American people recognize the distinction between those who are victims of terror and those who perpetrate it. We should not let knee-jerk reactions keep us from being the beacon of hope for Syrians and other refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and around the world. We should do what we do best–our values.
We should never compromise homeland security. We need to do everything we can to keep Americans safe. We need to make sure we have the strictest vetting procedures for anyone who wants to come to this country as a refugee or a visitor. We could always do a better job, and we have to do more to understand why Americans have been converted to radicalization through the Internet and what has happened on social media.
Yes, we need to do a much more effective job of keeping America safe and the homeland safe, but shutting down the Syrian refugee program would be a major mistake for our values of who we are as a nation and for our national security.