Homeland Security employees who screen refugee applicants are objecting to proposed legislation that could narrow refugee eligibility and empower state or local officials to bar refugees from their jurisdictions.
The Republican-sponsored “Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act of 2017,” or H.R. 2826—which would codify these changes—was approved June 28 by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in a 15-11 vote split along party lines. The measure would also give priority to those claiming persecution over minority religion status as compared to those asserting they faced persecution for some other reason.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a news release that his proposal strengthens U.S. national security because it “gives states and communities the power to decline resettlement,” and fixes the annual cap for refugees at 50,000, a figure President Trump adopted that’s half what former President Obama set before leaving office. The bill would transfer power to alter that cap from the president to Congress.
The legislation would also require that refugees wait three years, instead of one, to apply for permanent residency, and would impose new and prolonged vetting procedures abroad and on U.S. soil aimed at foiling terrorists from infiltrating the refugee admissions process.
The bill echoes elements of executive orders that Trump issued in January and revised in March to temporarily stop the admission of refugees and certain nationals with other types of visas. Trump’s executive orders also urges a greater role for local jurisdictions in deciding whether refugees could be settled there. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed portions of the March order seeking a temporary bar on admissions to go forward pending a decision on a challenge to the order.
Labrador was not available for comment, his staff said.
His bill, which has 11 co-sponsors but no floor vote scheduled yet, attempts to lock in powers for states or municipalities that have recently been rejected by federal appeals court judges.
In 2016, when Vice President Mike Pence tried, as a former governor, to block Syrian refugees from Indiana, a three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled against him, finding a lack of evidence for his arguments that the Syrians would jeopardize safety. Labrador’s bill “provides specific congressional authorization to allow local officials to determine what is best for their communities,” an aide to the House Judiciary Committee said in a statement.
On June 27, the day before the Judiciary Committee vote on Labrador’s bill, the union representing officers who vet refugee applications sent a letter of objection to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
The letter from the American Federation of Government Employees Local 505’s National Immigration and Naturalization Service Council 119 called the proposal “needlessly cruel towards the world's most vulnerable” and a “politically-driven bill that fails to achieve what it purports to accomplish.”
The letter was signed Council 119 president Michael Knowles, whose work in refugee clearance goes back to the Vietnam War; he said refugee officers were not consulted in the drafting of the bill.
“Allowing localities to reject (refugees) placement in a particular community rejects the freedom we all share in this country to live where we please,” the refugee officers wrote.
In January, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced his own State Refugee Security Act”, or S. 211, to give state governors the right to block refugees if they decide federal authorities haven’t provided “adequate assurance” that the refugees don’t pose a security risk. That bill was referred to the US. Senate Committee on the Judiciary.