US House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday called for a pause in a White House program to settle Syrian refugees in America, citing security fears following the Paris attacks.
The top Republican lawmaker joined half of US state governors in urging President Barack Obama to suspend the scheme, calling for a full review of the vetting process to ensure that would-be attackers do not slip into the country among the refugees.
“Our nation has always been welcoming but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan told reporters after meeting with House Republicans in the US Capitol.
“We think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program, in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population,” he added.
“This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
Suspected Islamic State extremists killed 129 people and injured hundreds in coordinated attacks in Paris last Friday.
The discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one Paris assailant has revived Europe’s debate on how hard a line to take on the record migrant influx, and stirred fears in US legislators and governors that jihadists are seeking to blend in with refugee masses in order to strike later.
Ryan said he and committee chairs in the House of Representatives were working on legislation to address the Syrian refugee crisis.
It was not immediately clear what the legislation would entail. Ryan said Monday he was considering all options.
Some Republicans are threatening to delay a government funding bill next month unless federal funds stop flowing to the program that allows thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere to resettle in America.
Congress must pass a spending bill by December 11 or risk forcing the government into shutdown. Republican lawmakers could use the opportunity to wedge refugee legislation into a must-pass bill.
Ryan said he wants the House to consider legislation as quickly as possible, adding that conclusions about the path forward would be made this week.
– Adequate vetting? –
The issue has become a political football in the US presidential election. Several Republican candidates including Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee have announced their strong opposition to the refugee program.
“There is no way that we can put any of our people at risk by bringing people in at this point,” said Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who shifted his position on refugees after saying in September that the US had a humanitarian duty to accept them.
Some 2016 hopefuls like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have said they would prioritize resettling for Syria’s Christian refugees and not Muslims. These comments drew criticism from the president.
Between October 1, 2011 and November 14 of this year, the United States admitted 2,159 Syrians for resettlement as refugees, according to the State Department.
Obama’s program aims to admit 10,000 Syrians in fiscal year 2016 which began October 1, which means the administration will need to rapidly ramp up the two-year screening process.
But Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, insist the vetting process has holes.
“Just last month, FBI director (James) Comey told this committee that the US refugee vetting process is not adequate to guarantee that Syrians referred for resettlement in the US are not terrorists who plan to harm us,” Goodlatte told a hearing in which US Attorney General Loretta Lynch was testifying Tuesday.
While Lynch acknowledged challenges, she said US agencies “will make every effort to vet every refugee coming into this country.”