In a remarkable political turnaround, the omnibus spending bill that was posted online yesterday has no language blocking refugees from Iraq and Syria from entering the country, despite the fact that many Republican lawmakers made it their top priority in the spending bill. In fact, the bill actually had some substantial increases in funding for humanitarian aid for refugees.
According to the Senate Minority’s summary of the roughly 2000-page omnibus, the bill provides $3.06 billion for Migration and Refugee Assistance, a $600 million increase from the President’s request. It also contains $2.79 billion for disaster relief, an increase of $1.05 billion from the President’s request, as well as the authority to transfer as much as $600 million of that amount to Migration and Refugee Assistance. While those increases don’t go far enough, they will make a difference to a great many people in desperate need, and given the current political climate around refugees, that is something to be grateful for.
As negotiations on the year-end spending bill were entering their final stages, the Paris attacks exacerbated America’s fear of terrorism and conservative pundits and politicians tied that fear directly – and unjustly – to refugees. They all but blamed refugees for the Paris attacks, and then shamelessly lied about the U.S. vetting process for refugees, claiming it was ineffective or even non-existent when in fact refugees are the most heavily vetted population to enter the country.
Thanks to their misinformation and fear mongering, it took all of one week for the political storm around refugees to jump from a tropical depression to a category 5 hurricane. In a matter of days, at least 31 governors declared they would not accept Syrian refugees in their states (despite their lack of legal authority to follow through with that policy). Polling showed that more than half of Americans were in favor of ending resettlement of Syrian refugees. Then, with the support of 47 Democratic Reps, the House passed a bill that would have effectively barred refugees from Iraq and Syria from entering the country. Knowing the bill would likely die in the Senate, Republicans decided the spending bill would be their best line of attack on refugee resettlement.
Thankfully, the responses from the progressive and moderate elements of our political spectrum were swift and powerful. On November 20, the day after the House voted to block Iraqi and Syrian refugees, 62 mayors sent a letter to Congress supporting the refugee resettlement program. On December 1, a bipartisan group of 20 national security experts sent a letter warning Congress of the national security implications of shutting our doors to refugees and urging them to keep our doors open. On December 2, over 1000 Rabbis sent a letter to Congress reminding lawmakers of the consequences of turning away refugees during World War II, and urging them to support refugee resettlement. That same day, 112 Reps sent a letter to the heads of the House Appropriations Committee calling for increased funding for humanitarian aid for refugees abroad, and increased funding for the resettlement program in order to increase the number of refugees we accept. Then on December 4, 87 Reps signed a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan asking him to refrain from including any language in the spending bill that would block refugees.
As part of the progressive pushback, Peace Action participated in a coalition of grassroots, faith-based, and aid organizations working to make sure Congress rejected any attempts to block refugees. In addition to helping organize and increase signers on some of the letters, the coalition employed a combination of direct and grassroots lobbying to encourage lawmakers to support refugee resettlement, and media work to challenge the false narratives being put forward by the political right.
Had Republicans succeeded in blocking refugees from Iraq and Syria, they would have directly undermined our national security by playing into the hateful narrative that ISIS relies on for recruitment; the message that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims are not welcome in the West. Instead, we’re countering that message by keeping our doors open and increasing humanitarian aid. For those reasons, assuming the bill passes as expected, this year’s omnibus is a big win for refugees fleeing war torn countries, but also for American values, and for our national security.