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Gwen Graham’s opponents for Florida governor criticized her during the first Democratic debate over a past vote to put extra restrictions on Syrian refugees.
Orlando-area businessman Chris King said the 2015 vote made it harder for Syrian refugees to come to this country (even though it never passed). Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum pointed out how former President Barack Obama was against the legislation.
Graham, who served one term in Congress representing north Florida, said her vote on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act would not have banned refugees from the country.
"That vote was not a vote to deny access to the United States," Graham said April 18 in Tampa. "It was a vote that would only have certified the process that was in place."
Given the pushback from her opponents, we wondered if Graham was right about the effect of the legislation.
The SAFE Act did not explicitly deny refugees’ entry to the United States. However, Graham downplayed the new burden it would have placed on the processing of certain refugees that would have slowed the process, likely resulting in at least a pause in admissions.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House passed the SAFE Act (HR 4038) in response to the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in more than 130 deaths. The vote was 289-137.
Forty-seven Democrats, including Graham, broke from the party and voted for the legislation. The bill never made it through the Senate.
Supporters at the time said the bill would increase national security.
"In light of new threats, we must strengthen our vetting process," Graham told reporters at the time. "We must be able to identify those who wish to do us harm, while continuing to offer a safe haven to those in need of refuge from war and persecution."
But opponents including the Obama White House said the bill would in effect prevent Syrian immigrants from coming to the United States. The end of the statement by the White House indicated Obama would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.
So what would this legislation have really have meant for Syrian refugees?
Under the existing requirements, experts said refugees experienced a processing time of 18 to 24 months in 2015. Refugees had to undergo a security clearance check that could take several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsor agency, "cultural orientation" classes, and one final security clearance.
The legislation would have added a layer of certification to the process that was in place.
It would have required each refugee case to have the sign-off of three agency heads.
Here’s a key portion of the text:
"A covered alien may only be admitted to the United States after the Secretary of Homeland Security, with the unanimous concurrence of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Director of National Intelligence, certifies to the appropriate Congressional Committees that the covered alien is not a threat to the security of the United States."
Had this become law, it would have extended the waiting period for these applications.
"To ask that we have my FBI director make personal guarantees would effectively grind the program to a halt," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a news conference after the bill passed the House.
So a more reasonable interpretation of this bill is that it would have slowed down or temporarily paused refugees from coming in to the United States. That is important context in understanding Graham’s defense.
"The bill did not specify how the certification process would work, so DHS, the FBI, and the Office of the National Intelligence Director would be tasked with agreeing on standards—which could take months (and result in a pause)," said Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst of the U.S. Immigration Program at the Migration Policy Institute.
Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees, agreed that nothing in the legislation stopped refugees from coming in. But he said the measure would have crippled the existing program.
"Such a new security layer would have added a major bureaucratic hurdle without value, as it would largely be redundant to the existing (checks)," he said.
The flow of Syrian refugees has decreased significantly since 2016 when the U.S. resettled more than 15,000, according to the Refugee Processing Center. In calendar year 2017, the country let in 3,024 refugees from Syria. So far this year, that number is just 11.
A few days into his administration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to indefinitely suspend the entry of Syrian refugees. A revised order in March 2017 suspended refugee entry for 120 days, but did not single out Syrian refugees for indefinite admission. Refugee admissions eventually resumed under "enhanced vetting."
In September 2017, Trump also reduced the cap on refugees coming to the United States from anywhere in the world to 45,000.
Graham said her 2015 vote for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act was "not a vote to deny access to the U.S."
Graham’s take on the legislation requires some context. While it would not have prevented Syrian entry outright, it would have installed a significant new layer of bureaucracy that would have at least delayed their entry. The bill would have required the signature of three agency heads for each case, an extraordinary hurdle on top of previous requirements.
We rate this claim Half True.
Interview, Matt Harringer, spokesperson for Gwen Graham’s campaign, April 19, 2018
Email exchange, Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, April 20, 2018
Email exchange, Hemanth C. Gundavaram, Co-Director at the Immigrant Justice Clinic at Northeastern University School of Law, April 23
Email interview, Sarah Pierce, associate policy analyst of the U.S. Immigration Program at the Migration Policy Institute, April 23
PolitiFact New Hampshire, Kuster says Republican-backed bill she voted for wouldn't pause resettlement of Syrian refugees, Dec. 18, 2015
PolitiFact Sheet: 5 questions about Syrian refugees, PolitiFact, Nov. 19, 2015
H.R.4038 - American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, Congress.gov, Nov. 19, 2015
Final vote results for roll call 643, clerk.house.gov, Nov. 19, 2015
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