How the Debate Over Syrian Refugees Changed in an Instant

Lawmakers and governors are now scrambling to take the toughest line against admitting refugees to the U.S.

Migrants wait to register with the police at a refugee center in the southern Serbian town of Presevo on Monday. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

In the minds of many politicians, the iconic image of a dead Syrian boy on the beach has been swept away by the Paris terrorist attacks.

After at least 129 died Friday in the City of Light, France embarked on a manhunt that spread to Belgium. It struck the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria while the United States hit the terrorist group's oil trucks for the first time. In an address Monday, President Obama defended his remark just a day before the attack that the Islamic State has been “contained,” noting that the group controls less territory than it did last year.

But it’s clearly not enough for many governors and members of Congress, who point to a Syrian passport found on the ground near the body of a suicide bomber as evidence that Syrian refugees are too dangerous to come to their backyard. Obama announced two months ago that the U.S. would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, up from around 2,000 refugees the country accepted in the past four-plus years of terrible conflict. (Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and others have taken the brunt of responsibility for the 4 million-plus Syrian refugees, although the U.S. has provided $4.5 billion—the most among any country—in humanitarian aid.)

In the past few days, at least a dozen Republican governors and New Hampshire’s Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, have protested the arrival of Syrian refugees into their states until the vetting process has been definitively vetted. While legal scholars and advocacy groups doubt that is within a governor's authority—the State Department said Monday its lawyers were looking into it—GOP lawmakers announced Monday that there would be oversight hearings as soon as this week eyeing the stream of refugees and legislation to limit them.

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul called to suspend their admission (back in February, he warned of a “federally funded jihadi pipeline”), as did Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Thursday to examine the crisis. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley is “exploring” legislation to limit the flow of Syrian refugees and looking at remedies through the appropriations process, according to spokeswoman Beth Levine. “Paris changed things,” she added.

It was just Sept. 3—several weeks ago—when front pages around the world showed a picture of three year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian, washed up dead on a Turkish beach as a sobering symbol of the world’s greatest refugee crisis since World War II. A week later, Obama announced his plan to dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees the U.S. would take. Around that time, GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Donald Trump left the door open on taking in some refugees. After the murders in Paris, both have shut it, citing national security concerns; the latter has said that the refugees could be “Trojan horses.”

The anti-refugee fever has hit the other Republican senators running for the White House. Rand Paul announced a bill Monday that would suspend visas to those from “high-risk” countries until Congress votes to reapprove them. And over the weekend, Ted Cruz said that Syria’s Muslim refugees should be barred, although its Christians pose “no meaningful risk,” according to The Washington Post.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, a marginal GOP candidate who in October cosponsored a bill for a billion dollars in additional spending for the resettlement of thousands more refugees, called for a “timeout” until “we have a system that we think will work.”

In response to a question by radio host Hugh Hewitt Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another GOP presidential candidate, said he had such little faith in the administration's ability to vet Syrian refugees that he doesn't even think "orphans under 5" should be considered. Tommy Vietor, Obama's former national security spokesman, noted on Twitter that Christie had previously pointed to Kurdi as a "symbol for this country's inaction and this president's deceit."

"This president has allowed these folks to be slaughtered," Christie said in September, according to The Washington Post. "I frankly can't imagine as president of the United States how you could permit this to happen on this scale, and now we're seeing those results. And it's much different when you read about it, and when you see it—it becomes even more powerful."

Some Republicans have pushed back on shutting down the Syrian refugee process. On Monday, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin called for women, children, and relatives of Syrian-American citizens to be prioritized in a thorough vetting process. “We’re a pretty compassionate society here,” Johnson said, adding that Syria is the host of a “genocide.”

But the calls of other Republicans could complicate the end-of-year spending package, which must pass by Dec. 11 to keep the government open. Some top Democrats, including Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, and Chris Murphy, have called for the U.S. to take up tens of thousands more Syrian refugees. Advocacy groups as well as the State Department have defended the inter-agency refugee system as tough and just, but in an October hearing, FBI Director James Comey noted “gaps” in the data crucial for screening Syrians.

In response to the cries of conservatives to close U.S. borders from Syrians, Obama reiterated Monday that the U.S. would take refugees under "rigorous screening and security checks” and admonished those who would separate aid or the vetting process by religion, calling the idea “shameful."

"We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves,” said Obama. “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.”