WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDAM) - The United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday that halts Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. until more security screening provisions are put in place.
Congressman Greg Harper (R- Miss.) is a cosponsor of House Resolution 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, also called the SAFE Act.
"This is something that I believe is fair, and it's a commonsense bill that says, 'Look, if you're not sure, then protect your country first'," Harper said.
The SAFE Act, which the president said he would veto, requires the country's three top security chiefs to sign off on refugees before they are accepted in the United States. The resolution specifically applies to refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Rep. Steven Palazzo (R- Miss.) supported the SAFE Act, tweeting earlier this week, "Refugees from the Middle East should be resettled in the Middle East, not here in America."
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D- Miss.), on the other side of the issue, also posted on social media and said, "Providing safe harbor to individuals who no longer have a home because (of) war and violence is the humane and American thing to do."
The U.S. took in around 1,200 Syrian refugees last fiscal year, compared to 249 the previous year and only 45 in 2013, according to the state department. An anticipated 10,000 Syrian refugees will be brought in this fiscal year if Congress does not block funding for the necessary screening process, which takes anywhere from 18-24 months.
That process, which is more stringent than other countries', includes medical exams, security checks and in-person interviews with immigration officers at the Department of Homeland Security. Rep. Harper said he wants a tougher process in America, but he is concerned with the ability of the refugees' home countries to provide background information on these individuals seeking asylum.
"We don't know that they can come up with a stronger vetting process," Harper said of Syria and Iraq. "Until we have a better safeguard in place, you can't allow any in for the time being."
Congressman Harper also cosponsored H.R. 3314, the Refugee Resettlement Accountability National Security Act and H.R. 3573, the Refugee Resettlement Oversight and Security Act, which are both in committee.
H.R. 3314 suspends admission of refugees in order to examine how much they will cost the U.S. if seeking benefits, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), disability and Section 8 Housing.
According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), refugees are more likely than other immigrants and U.S. born to receive public benefits in their first five years in the United States. However, that number declines and most of the gap closes within 10 years. MPI reported less than 25 percent of refugee households with at least 10 years in the U.S. receiving food stamps between 2009-11, compared to 11 percent of U.S. born.
Additionally, MPI reported 3 percent of refugee households receive cash welfare benefits, compared to 2 percent of U.S. born recipients. Refugees also closely rank with U.S. born on public health insurance coverage, with fewer than 15 percent of refugees are on a public plan after a decade in the U.S., compared to 11 percent of U.S.-born adults.
Harper's other effort, H.R. 3573, would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to require a joint resolution approving the number of refugees in any fiscal year. It would also require prioritizing those who are members of a religious minority in a persecuted group.
"We want to help people in need, but the fact is, it doesn't take many Islamic terrorists to create havoc and commit murder as we saw what happened in Paris, and as we've seen in other places," Harper said.
Compared to previous years, the Obama administration's refugee ceiling is modest. In 1980, the ceiling was 231,700 and 142,000 in 1993, according to the U.S. Department of State. The state department also reported no Syrian refugee settlements in Mississippi last fiscal year. Compared to neighboring states, Louisiana took in up to 10, Tennessee settled between 10 and 50, and neither Arkansas nor Alabama had Syrian refugees settle in their states.