“Can you name for me—or identify for me—a suicidal terrorist who hasn’t been Muslim?” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez at a hearing on Thursday.
“I’m not even going to answer that question, Congressman,” a stunned Rodriguez replied just hours before the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to keep Syrians out of the U.S.
“Why can’t you answer that question?” King goaded.
“What I can say is that we do our job,” Rodriguez said. “If terrorists are attempting to gain admission to the United States then we do our job to prevent them from doing so.”
“You’re telling me that you’re doing a thorough vetting process, but you aren’t able to tell me that you specifically ask them what their religion is?” King said as Democrats shuddered. “And if you don’t specifically ask them than neither are you able to quantify the risk to the American society?”
So began the day that the U.S. House may have handed ISIS a huge gift when it voted to erect new hurdles to keep Syrian refugees out of the country.
Newly minted Speaker Paul Ryan tried to assure reporters early in the week that the bill—hastily assembled in the wake of the attacks in Paris—wasn’t about keeping Muslims out of the country, but other Republicans didn’t listen to their party’s standard-bearer. Instead, they unleashed borderline (and beyond) Islamophobic rhetoric to all who would listen.
It’s not just Steve King. Throughout the week 30 Republican governors (and one Democrat) went further than the House as they rushed to close their borders to all Syrians (even though they can’t legally do it), including GOP presidential candidates Chris Christie (NJ) and John Kasich (OH). Donald Trump called for closing mosques. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) readied legislation to ban Muslim Syrians from entering the U.S.
The debate about Syrian refugees came less than a week after terrorist attacks rocked Paris, and it was centered more on unknowns and potentialities than on any tangible threats to the homeland from ISIS, also known as Daesh in the Arab world.
Democrats were appalled, but none more than the only two Muslims in Congress (the first and the second ever elected): Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison and Andre Carson.
“The language we use reinforces them. Daesh is trying to make a case that the West is at war with Islam,” Ellison (D-MN) told The Daily Beast. “They’re trying to say they’re the ones defending themselves. The truth is, that’s a lie; that’s completely untrue. But when we say ‘We’re only going to take in Christian refugees,’ Daesh gets up and says, ‘Told ya. The Crusaders are looking out for the Crusaders.’”
Carson said the language was hurtful.
“It’s sad. It’s unacceptable,” Carson told The Daily Beast as he grimaced. “We have to be careful that we’re not making statements for what we perceive to be political gain that at the same time undermines our values.”
Carson said his fear is the heated charges against Muslims play into the strategy of Daesh.
“Young people are very vulnerable. [Daesh] is operating the way, a lot of sociologists have noted, that cults behaved in the ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s. They are capitalizing off of disillusionment,” he said, adding that Congress ought to be engaging people from other countries; not alienating them.
“There is a tendency, or a human impulse, in the midst of these kinds of incidents for elected officials to live in absolutes,” Carson said. “To live in an absolute without noting the nuance that is there, that you have good Muslims who are working in their intelligence agencies and law enforcement communities to keep their countries safe, really does a disservice to all the contributions that Muslims are making.”
The legislation the House passed requires the heads of some of the nation’s top security agencies to personally certify that anyone from Syria or Iraq seeking refuge in the U.S. is “not a threat to the security of the United States.”
Experts argued about worst-case scenarios but, on Thursday, their objections seemed to fall on deaf ears.
“No terrorist in his right mind would use the refuge program as a way to enter the United States,” Immigration Services Director Rodriguez said. “They may find other channels; it’s not going to be through the refuge program. It’s too intrusive. It’s too invasive. It’s too thorough in the security checks that it does.”
The government estimates there are more than 19 million refugees displaced across the globe—the most in history—and roughly a quarter of them are from Syria. The Obama administration maintains they’re trying to attract the most vulnerable to the United States.
“We are looking at people who have been tortured,” testified Anne C. Richard, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department.
She then continued the gruesome list of asylum seekers. “Burn victims from barrel bombs, people who are widows and children, but also the elderly, families that have been ripped apart as members have been murdered in front of their eyes.”
King was unmoved.
“We’re talking about a huge haystack of humanity,” King chided the witnesses. “And that hay is benign, relatively speaking, but in that haystack are the needles called terrorists.”