Sen. Michael Bennet voted to block a bill designed to make it harder for Iraqi and Syrian refugees to find safety in the United States.
A bill designed to prevent nearly all Iraqi and Syrian refugees from entering the United States failed Wednesday in the Senate on a procedural vote.
Sen. Michael Bennet joined all but two Democrats in blocking the bill, which would have required top officials, including the head of the FBI, to personally sign off on all applications from Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
The motion to move the bill to discussion failed with a vote of 55-43; it needed 60 votes to pass.
The controversial bill, known as the American SAFE Act, passed in the House late last year despite President Barack Obama’s threat to veto it. In a vote that came less than a week after the Paris attacks, 47 House Democrats, including Rep. Jared Polis, supported the measure. Polis defended his vote, saying he hoped the bill would actually increase the flow of refugees.
In a speech made after the Senate vote, Bennet, whose grandparents fled Warsaw with his then-infant mother to escape the Nazis, recalled the United States’ history of serving as a refuge for those pursuing safety and freedom.
“Our principles don’t mean very much if we jettison them when we find them politically inconvenient or difficult to live by,” he said.
The vote outraged Colorado conservatives, including Advancing Colorado director Jonathan Lockwood, who called Bennet a “suspicious senator” on Twitter.
“The bottom line,” Lockwood said, “is that we see that Senator Michael Bennet has a consistent pattern of silencing Americans by blocking important votes in the Senate. His positions are advancing an agenda that endangers our lives, and we have every right to ask him: ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’”
Bennet’s answer, like that of other opponents, is that requiring signatures from the secretary of Homeland Security, the head of the FBI and the director of national intelligence for every individual refugee would effectively halt the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees while doing little to increase safety.
“A blanket prohibition like this doesn’t actually make us safer, and refugees are more thoroughly vetted than anyone else entering the United States,” Bennet said in a statement.
Indeed, the screening process for refugees is stringent. Only those recommended for resettlement by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can even begin the process, which can take up to two years. Refugees from Syria are subject to additional measures.
“We feel very strongly that this program is the toughest vetting system for any traveler to the United States,” Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, told NPR last year.
She called the current refugee screening program “tremendously successful,” noting that, of the more than three million refugees brought to the U.S. since the 1970s, not one has successfully carried out a terrorist attack. According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, of the 784,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2011, just three have been arrested for terrorism-related activities. Only one was plotting a domestic attack, with “barely credible” plans.
Bennet also criticized the bill from a practical perspective. “It is likely [these officials] would be able to do nothing else during the course of the day to keep us secure because they would be busy signing these certifications,” he said.
Instead, he has pushed for increased security for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The program would make those who have traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years ineligible for a visa waiver, thus requiring such applicants to submit biometric data and undergo in-person interviews.
Photo: A Syrian family waits after being escorted into the harbor by the Greek Coast Guard, which found them drifting offshore on June 4, 2015, in Kos, Greece. Credit: Freedom House, Public Domain.