Politics

Inside the Syrian refugee vote: California representatives explain what shaped their votes

An Obama administration push urging lawmakers to oppose legislation that would effectively halt a program for refugees from Syria and Iraq failed to convince eight California Democrats who joined their Republican colleagues Thursday to pass the measure by a veto-proof majority.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sat down with Democrats hours before the vote, hoping for a different result. The Obama administration held several meetings and briefings with Congress members and reporters in recent days to make the case that the added restrictions would send the wrong message to U.S. allies about how the country treats people from predominantly Muslim countries. 

But Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) said the administration didn’t explain well enough how the bill could do harm.

“The administration has not made the case to me that today’s bill will shut down or unduly delay our existing process,” he said in a statement. “It is not too burdensome for federal agencies to certify that admitted refugees will not endanger our communities.”

The California Democrats voting in favor of the measure were Peters and Reps. Pete Aguilar (Redlands), Ami Bera (Elk Grove), Julia Brownley (Westlake Village), Jim Costa (Fresno), John Garamendi (Walnut Grove), Janice Hahn (Los Angeles) and Raul Ruiz (Palm Desert). See our tally here

Aguilar said supporting the bill doesn’t translate to caring less for refugees.

“The added level of security does not diminish our commitment to helping the innocent men, women and children fleeing the grips of Islamic State militants or the Assad regime, rather it strengthens our defense and will enable us to move forward through a safer and more secure process to relocate refugees,” he said in a statement.

Hahn said in a statement she saw a benefit in strengthening the current process to vet refugees from Syria. 

“Refugees currently entering this country go through a rigorous 21-step screening that takes between 18 to 24 months,” she said. “The legislation under consideration [Thursday] adds additional layers of security, and because I believe that it will help to assuage fears I was happy to support it. We do not need to choose between security and compassion.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) told reporters before the vote that members were free to vote their conscience and she expected several to vote in favor. The legislation ultimately passed the House 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats joining Republicans in supporting the bill.

Pelosi said she also expected House Democrats could later keep the chamber from overriding a veto. 

“Some members just were set to vote for this bill and so I don’t know that there would have been any answer that would have satisfied their concern,” Pelosi said.

Moments before the vote, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said she was still wrestling with what to do.

“It’s a very tough call. The data supports the fact that those who are coming in, 97% are women and children and even widows with small children, 3% are military-aged men. It is an 18-month to two-year process that allows for elaborate, exhaustive vetting,” Speier said. “This bill isn’t providing more resources so that we can be more comprehensive. It is just a 'fix it, slap this' message so the public thinks that we’ve done something.”

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Speier is privy to classified data on the subject.

“Obviously it’s a struggle. I have too much information. That’s part of the curse of being on the Intelligence Committee, is you have a lot of information,” she said.

When the time came, Speier voted against the measure.

All 14 Republican members of California’s delegation supported the House legislation Thursday. Several told the Los Angeles Times their offices had received a deluge of calls and emails.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), who had said he was reluctant to halt the program because of the number of Assyrian refugees in his district, was among the supporters. He said he doesn’t expect the restrictions to have a negative effect on Assyrian American constituents trying to bring their families to safety.

“I believe very strongly that the communities that can best identify that they are being persecuted and targeted are the first to be able to pass that part of the vetting process,” he said. “The other big part of the vetting process is proving who you are, and what better way to do that then having a family member that’s ready to vouch for you and provide documentation? The people in my community are able to do that.”

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) said the majority of people who have contacted his office support tougher restrictions.

“This isn’t a religious issue, this isn’t a Muslim issue. This is an issue of a country that is war-torn” and getting information about people who want to come to the United States is difficult, he said.

He urged Gov. Jerry Brown in a letter to reconsider his stance that vetted Syrian refugees are welcome to come to the state and instead join the more than two dozen governors who have said they would try to block Syrians' resettlement.

“Obviously we know that is not a power that they hold,” he said of the governors. But “it does show the powerful message to the administration if you get a majority of the governors like you have today.”

Brown on Thursday asked the White House for more information

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said hundreds of constituents have called on the issue.

“Right now, we need a timeout and that’s what this bill is about. We need to understand the security, the background checks, make sure if they are real or not,” Calvert said. “This is about national security.”

Several California Democrats who voted against the bill said their heavily Latino or Asian constituencies encouraged them to vote no.

“This is a land of immigrants. We’re all children of immigrants, so what are we afraid of,” said Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk).

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) said her constituents “are very worried about the access of someone being able to enter the U.S. legally. They understand what they went through and are concerned about that process.” 

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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