President Obama bemoaned a climate of fear in the U.S. that he said was stoked by political leaders seeking to block refugees “based on hysteria” rather than facts, and he accused Republicans of providing a “potent recruitment tool” for Islamic State.
In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, more than half of U.S. governors, mostly Republicans, have said they would refuse to admit Syrian refugees in their states, pointing to the perpetrators of the assaults and claiming that the security risk is too great. But the suspects who have been identified are mostly French and Belgian, not refugees from Syria, among whom, Obama noted, are young children.
“At first, they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of 3-year-old orphans,” Obama said of Republicans, speaking early Wednesday in Manila, the first stop in his Asia visit. “That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”
In some of his most pointed public remarks since the attacks, Obama told reporters after a meeting with the Philippine president here that fear and panic were a poor basis for governors to make their decisions, and he accused them of only increasing the danger that Islamic State poses.
“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate,” Obama said, using an acronym sometimes used for the terrorist group.
Obama said he understands why Americans have reacted so strongly to the attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people Friday. The president alluded to comments from some Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, who said in a radio interview that he would even block the youngest refugees from entering his state.
“We need appropriate vetting, and I don’t think orphans under 5 … should be admitted into the United States at this point,” Christie told radio host Hugh Hewitt.
While Obama was starting his day in the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here, senior administration officials in Washington held a 90-minute phone call with 34 governors to explain the country’s refugee admissions policies and answer questions about how those who want to resettle in the U.S. are screened.
The call was led by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and included officials from the departments of Homeland Security, State, Health and Human Services and the FBI. Thirteen governors asked questions during what the White House said was an extensive session, and administration officials emphasized Obama’s commitment to keeping the U.S. safe.
Any refugees, including from Syria, are only admitted after undergoing rigorous vetting, the officials said.
Obama noted in his remarks to reporters that it usually takes 18 to 24 months for a refugee to be admitted to the U.S., after what is the “most rigorous process conceivable.”
Obama mentioned the criticism he’s gotten over the slow pace of admitting refugees as other nations face pressure to deal with the millions flooding into Europe from Syria and elsewhere in the largest global humanitarian crisis since World War II. The U.S. is on track to admit about 10,000 refugees from Syria during the fiscal year that began last month.
“If there are concrete, actual ideas to expand the extraordinary screening process in place, we’re open to hearing actual ideas, but that’s not what’s been going on this debate,” Obama said.
The governors’ announcements, though they’ve generated headlines, have little legal authority. They cannot block the federal government from funding refugee relocation.
Congress, though, has been quick to draft legislation barring refugees but has still not addressed Obama’s request for a formal authorization to use force against Islamic State, which he first sought in February.
“That doesn’t sound right to me, and I suspect it doesn’t sound right to the American people,” he said.
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