Despite lawmakers’ 289-137 vote in the House on Thursday in favor of halting a program aimed at resettling Syrian refugees, a vast majority of Asian-American members of Congress voted against the bill, arguing that the measure went against basic American values.
“No refugees [on American soil] have committed a terrorist act,” California Congressman Ted Lieu told NBC News. “If you look at what happened in Paris, those attacks were committed by French nationals and Belgian citizens. So by the Republican logic you should be banning travel to the United States by French and Belgians. And if that sounds ridiculous, so should the idea of scapegoating Syrian orphans, widows, and senior citizens fleeing persecution.”
Lieu said those three categories represent the majority of the 2,220 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. so far.
Lieu also mentioned how the recent comments by Roanoke Mayor David Bowers, in which Bowers referred to Japanese-American internment during World War II as justification to deny Syrian refugees entry to America ,shows how fear has distorted the politics in America.
Rep. Mike Honda of California, chairman emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and a former internee, said he was “disappointed by the vote,” and disappointed by how some in Congress would “use war hysteria, racial prejudice and religion…and not provide the necessary political leadership in the face of popular sentiment that is wrong headed.”
Honda said the bill actually would create a new system of vetting the refugees that could take up to five years to implement which, he said, would essentially allow legislators to avoid addressing resettlement.
In remarks on the House floor Thursday morning, Rep. Mark Takano of California addressed the Roanoke mayor’s comments. “What takes wisdom is recognizing that history is now repeating itself. And what takes courage is sending a message to the world that America will protect innocent people regardless of their nationality or religion,” Takano said.
Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus were nearly unanimous in voting no, against the restrictive measure. Of the two members who joined nearly 50 Democrats to forge a bipartisan majority for the bill was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, who in 2014 called for the immediate suspension of the Visa Waiver Program for countries “that have large numbers of Islamic extremists actively fighting alongside groups such as ISIL in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
NBC News reached out to Gabbard, but did not receive a comment on her vote by Thursday evening. In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Gabbard had stated, “I’m doing my due diligence to find out exactly how these refugees are going to be vetted, and getting details from the Department of Homeland Security and relevant intelligence agencies responsible for vetting Syrian refugees before they are allowed to enter the United States.”
The second member of CAPAC to vote in favor of the bill was Rep. Ami Bera of California, a medical doctor and the only Indian American currently serving in Congress.
“It is critical that our first priority is to keep America safe — that is why I voted today for a bill to ensure that all Syrian refugees are thoroughly vetted,” Bera said in a statement Thursday. “This additional screening step will ensure that we know those coming into the country are not a security threat.”
But Lieu said the bill’s creation of extra security for every refugee is a waste of time and effort by national security agencies. Lieu added that refugees already go through an 18-24 month vetting process before becoming eligible to enter the U.S.
“We should make our intelligence gathering better [and] that would prevent a Paris-style attack, not focusing on widows fleeing Syria,” Lieu said. “The bill gives terrorists exactly what they want, which is an overreaction from Western countries that feed into their rhetoric to get more recruits…What they want is Islamophobia. They want the U.S. and Western nations to take ridiculous actions that are anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim because it helps recruit even more terrorists. We should be doing what France is doing. France suffered these horrific terrorist attacks last week and are letting in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.”
The 289 majority makes the bill veto proof, and it is unclear if the Senate will take up the measure after they return from Thanksgiving break.