Risch speaks out on Turkey, Syria in Senate 10-17-19

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, about Turkey’s assault on Kurds in northern Syria.

The Turkey sanctions bill U.S. Sen. Jim Risch is sponsoring would prioritize some Syrian Kurdish refugees, such as ones who worked with the United States in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, for entry into the country.

The Idaho Republican senator is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019 has 15 co-sponsors from both parties, including New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Risch’s bill is one of several that have been proposed in response to Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria and attacks on Kurdish militias that had helped American forces in their fight against ISIS. Turkey’s invasion came shortly after President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. troops from the area earlier this month.

Risch’s bill contains numerous provisions, including imposing economic sanctions on Turkey. It would direct the Secretary of State to classify certain Syrians as Priority 2 refugees, a designation given to groups that raise special humanitarian concerns.

The bill specifies that this designation would apply to “Syrian Kurds, stateless persons who habitually resided in Syria, and other Syrians” who worked for or partnered with the U.S. government, who worked for organizations based in the U.S. or that partnered with the U.S. government, or who provided services to the U.S. in fighting ISIS. The families of the people eligible to apply also would be eligible for admission.

The bill says membership in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the militia that worked with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, cannot be used to deem someone inadmissible. It also authorizes the Secretary of State to designate other groups of Syrians who could be at risk of persecution as Priority 2 refugees. These refugees would be exempted from the general worldwide cap on refugee admissions, which the Trump administration has set at 18,000 for the next year.

Syrian Kurds would need to apply proactively to be allowed in, which makes it tough to predict how many would be admitted if this becomes law, said Suzanne Wrasse, spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The vetting process, she said, would be the same as for any other groups of refugees, a process that she said is stricter now than it was under the Obama administration.

“Due to the increased security vetting, we do not have estimates on the numbers which would pass the security screening,” she said in an email. “This does not create a new program. It reorders the priority with which the U.S. reviews refugee applications.”

On Thursday the right-wing website Breitbart, which often reports from an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim perspective, published an article focused on the refugee admissions portion of the bill, accusing Risch of “pushing a new bill that would transport many Muslims from chaotic Syria and Kurdistan into America’s schools and workplaces.” The piece quoted an anonymous source slamming the proposal:

“The program would import Syria’s chaotically diverse cultures and conflicts back into the United States, the official said, adding, ‘It is the ‘Invade the World/Invite the World’ attitude,’” Breitbart’s Neil Munro wrote.

“The legislation reflects the politicians’ starry-eyed support for foreign groups, regardless of the cost inflicted on Americans, the official said. ‘They care more about Syrians than they care about Americans,’ the source said.”

Wrasse said Breitbart didn’t reach out to Risch’s office before publication and called the piece inaccurate. She disputed the implication that the refugees who would be admitted under Risch’s bill would pose a national security risk.

“All refugees entering the United States go through a very extensive screening process,” she said. “If they pose a national security risk, they will not be admitted into the United States. President Trump took steps at the beginning of his administration to increase security vetting for these populations.”

The bill was introduced Oct. 17 and is competing with other proposals to sanction Turkey. A different bill passed the House earlier this week, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have another sanctions bill. Risch’s bill hasn’t had a hearing yet, and Wrasse said it remains to be seen what will emerge at the end of the process.

“The language is still being worked on by its bipartisan cosponsors,” she said. “It’s tough to speculate on where it will lead, and whether it will be merged or amended with other legislation.”

Trump frequently painted refugees as a national security threat on the campaign trail, often targeting Syrian and Muslim refugees in particular and at one point calling for a ban on letting Muslims into the United States. Since taking office he has been steadily cutting refugee admissions from the highs of about 100,000 per year in the last years of the Obama administration. There are refugee resettlement centers in Twin Falls and Boise, and the number of refugees being resettled in Idaho has declined along with the national drop.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.