WASHINGTON (CN) - The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would slash the number of refugees the United States admits each year by a third, and give states the right to refuse to resettle refugees in their borders.
Passing the committee with 18 votes to 9, the Refugee Program Integrity Act will also allow Congress to set the yearly ceiling for refugee admissions, a power that currently belongs to the president.
"Considering the terrorist threats facing our nation, we have a right to be concerned about resettlement of refugees from countries that are hotbeds of terrorist activity," Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said.
Democrats met the committee chairman and the bill's other Republican sponsors with stiff opposition.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said this reaction to the world's largest refugee crisis since World War II would "deem all refugees suspect and effectively build walls around entire communities."
Calling the 60,000 cap on refugees that the bill authorizes "arbitrary" and "stigmatizing," Conyers said it will hamper the president's ability to respond to world crises in a timely fashion.
The United States is set to admit 100,000 refugees in 2017, up from 85,000 in 2016 and the previous yearly cap of 70,000.
As the State Department reviews the legislation, it promised to continue working with state and local governments on refugee resettlement.
Compounding their failure to schedule any hearings to debate the issue, the bill's sponsors earned criticism from Conyers for not seeking input from the Obama administration and the agencies that oversee the refugee-resettlement program.
"This is not a serious attempt to legislate," Conyers said, noting that lawmakers received only a draft of the bill Monday.
"I suspect this is another political exercise to play on our worst fears, similar to the divisive and dangerous rhetoric being used by certain political candidates," Conyers said.
The text of the bill allows recurrent security checks of refugees after they are admitted to the country until they become permanent, lawful residents.
Rep. Susan Delbene, D-Wash., noted that the bill contains no triggering provisions that indicate when this type of surveillance is warranted.
"As written, this legislation would really unleash the power to conduct unlimited surveillance on admitted refugees," Delbene said.
"History will not look kindly on us if we adopt a stance that all refugees should be subject to unfettered surveillance just because they belong to a certain class of people," she added.
The bill's author, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, called this the "commonsense" part of the legislation, meanwhile, saying it ensures that the federal government can investigate any potential threats among admitted refugees, and prevent people from abusing the program.
Delbene proposed striking that part of the bill, but the committee voted the modification down.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., reminded the committee that refugee applicants already undergo 18 to 24 months of rigorous security screening, exhausting every U.S. security-screening method available.
Sponsors and supporters of the bill countered with security concerns that FBI Director James Comey raised last year about gaps in available data to thoroughly and properly vet refugee applicants, particularly those from Syria.
Lofgren said Comey later "walked back" those comments and declared the process effective despite the challenges and gaps in the process.
Larry Bartlett, director of the Office of Refugee Admissions at the U.S. Department of State, told Courthouse News in October that when gaps in data exist, refugees are not approved for admission.
Lofgren also took issue with a section of the bill that would favor practitioners of religious minorities from the countries in which they seek refuge. Lofgren said this would favor Christian refugees over Muslims fleeing violence and persecution.
"I think this is a bad idea," Lofgren said. "I think it's inconsistent with international law - I think it's inconsistent with American values."
Labrador retorted that only applicants from countries with the worst records of religious persecution will trigger this provision.
"No specific religion is singled out by this bill," the congressman said, noting that Muslims from Burma, for example, would benefit from this bill.
The committee voted against Lofgren's proposal to remove this part of the bill.
Lofgren later objected to a proposed amendment from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would let voters introduce ballot initiatives or referendums if governors or legislatures will not bar the resettling of refugees in their states.
This will give the power back to "we the people," King said.
Lofgren sharply disagreed.
"This will embolden anti-immigrant activities around the country as people move forward to ban refugees, even when a decisive majority of Americans favor welcoming refugees," she said.
"I think it's always a problem when you encourage voters to enact measures that are unconstitutional," Lofgren added.
The committee approved King's proposal.
Social media and Internet postings by refugee applicants are required reading for investigators under the proposed bill.
"I am pleased the committee approved this legislation and I urge the House to take it up soon," Goodlatte said.
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