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There's a growing push on Capitol Hill to suspend the entire Syrian refugee resettlement program. Republican leaders in both chambers have asked to pause the flow of Syrian refugees into the U.S. until lawmakers can be assured that terrorists won't enter the country. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: A labyrinth of security checks and crosschecks awaits any Syrian refugee who wants entry into the United States, screenings that stretch between a year and a half to two years. Those checks involve the FBI and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. It's a process the White House says is rigorous, but a swelling chorus of Republicans now say it's not enough.
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PAUL RYAN: We cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it's better to be safe than to be sorry.
CHANG: House Speaker Paul Ryan says this isn't about politics. It's about the security of the country.
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RYAN: So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.
CHANG: Ryan's asked a task force of House Republicans to craft a bill halting the resettlement program for now, and a vote's expected later this week. But if that bill doesn't clear the Senate, Republicans may want to use a must-pass government spending bill in December as leverage to strip federal funding from the resettlement program. They say it doesn't matter how vigorously the White House insists it's vetting the refugees.
STEVE KING: That's a high pile of baloney.
CHANG: Iowa Republican Steve King.
KING: These are people that don't have a legal existence in their own country. If they have a motivation to change their identity, they'll change their identity by any kind of a pseudonym they decide to assign to themselves.
CHANG: So King and others want to set up more so-called safe zones in Syria or in neighboring countries and keep the refugees there. They'd offer them aid and military support. Republican Matt Salmon of Arizona says that would make it easier for the refugees to return.
MATT SALMON: We can also ensure that when those people decide to go back to their country and fix their country, when it's safe to do so, that they're in close proximity.
CHANG: But humanitarian groups say these refugees are fleeing the region. Many of them cannot feel safe in such safe zones. And so far, the White House isn't backing away from its plan to resettle 10,000 additional Syrian refugees in the U.S. next year. Many Democrats, like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, say the program should continue until there's real evidence that the vetting process isn't working.
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: This rush to judgment - that you're going to leave refugees out there in the winter with small children freezing in Europe is certainly not the American way.
CHANG: But the assumption now among many of her Republican colleagues is that terrorists are already living among these refugee communities, ready to take advantage of a possible path into the U.S. Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee says he's seen plenty of innocent looking families in refugee camps, but...
BOB CORKER: At the same time, we've heard some reports of some of the refugee camps having people in them that are single men, that are muscle-bound, that just don't look like families that, you know, are trying to evade barrel bombs, look like maybe they're there for other reasons.
CHANG: White House officials are visiting both chambers this week for full, classified briefings before the House votes on the refugee resettlement program. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.