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Protesters for and against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees during a demonstration at the Washington State capitol in Olympia, Washington on November 20, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

UPDATE: US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled a vote on HR 4038 on Wednesday, January 20th at 2:30pm ET.  

(Washington, DC) – The United States Senate should reject a bill that would place unnecessary and burdensome restrictions on resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the US, Human Rights Watch said today.

The American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, House Resolution (HR) 4038, was introduced in the House of Representatives on November 17, 2015, four days after the attacks on Paris, and passed two days later. The bill, now before the US Senate, creates nearly insurmountable procedural obstacles for resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq in the US, Human Rights Watch said.

“The House rushed out a new refugee bill after the Paris attacks that ignores the strict security mechanisms that already exist under US law,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Senate should now put on the brakes so that those in desperate need of safety are able to find it.”

HR 4038 was introduced on the same day that US governors began to make statements that they would try to oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Currently, 31 governors have made such statements, although they lack the legal authority to block refugee admissions.

The US takes in about 70,000 refugees from around the world through resettlement each year, and has admitted slightly more than 2,000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in 2011. In September 2015, President Barack Obama made a commitment to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees through resettlement in the upcoming year.

Under the current resettlement system, no Syrian or Iraqi refugee can be admitted before undergoing a multi-step screening process that requires Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Defense, and National Counterterrorism Center background checks that usually take up to two years.

HR 4038 would require a second layer of FBI background screening for any resettled refugees from Iraq or Syria, and a certification for each refugee that the person does not pose a security threat. The certification would have to be made by the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security with the unanimous concurrence of the director of the FBI and the director of national intelligence. The Homeland Security secretary would then bring this certification to 12 separate congressional committees. The bill provides no funding for the additional screening.

These additional steps could make it practically impossible for Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing persecution and extremist violence to be admitted to the US to provide them the protection they need, Human Rights Watch said.

“Overburdening an already thorough security screening process delays the ability of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to find a safe haven,” Ginatta said. “Congress should not punish refugees who are fleeing extremist violence in the name of national security.”


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