What the Senate Preserved in Blocking the SAFE Act

Too often, when political decisions are driven by fear, the pressure on lawmakers to do “something” outweighs efforts toward creating sound public policy that takes practical steps to address gaps or solve problems.

On November 13, 2015, Americans watched in horror as the terrorist attacks in Paris unfolded — 130 people were killed, another 367 injured. The victims were enjoying a regular Friday evening until attackers affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) entered restaurants and a concert hall with Kalashnikovs and suicide bomb vests.

Within days, the political debate in the United States turned toward refugees and the US Refugee Admissions Program, even though there was zero connection between the Paris attacks and vulnerabilities or failures in US refugee resettlement processes. More than 30 governors declared they would not accept Syrian refugees in their states, presidential candidates began calling for a complete ban on resettling Syrian refugees, and the US House of Representatives swiftly passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015 (HR 4038). The SAFE Act was a facially benign, yet deeply misguided, piece of legislation that would impose such insurmountable bureaucratic barriers to the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees that it would effectively shut down the program.

In response, two former Homeland Security Secretaries, a bipartisan group of 20 national security leaders, and over 500 humanitarian aid, faith, labor, refugee, and human rights groups sent letters arguing that the United States can continue to provide refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution without compromising security and safety. The consensus from the experts was clear: The US Refugee Admissions Program is the most secure of any program admitting non-citizens to the United States. In a Just Security post following the House vote, Jaya Ramji-Nogales outlined the thorough vetting and security process refugees undergo while highlighting that blunt-stroke congressional action related to refugee and immigration policy that fails to recognize steps the executive has already taken to address security and/or fraud is by no means a new phenomenon.

Yesterday, by a vote of 55 to 43, the Senate voted down a motion to proceed on the SAFE Act, ending the debate for now and maintaining a critical tool of foreign policy and humanitarian assistance.

What did the Senate vote preserve? In rejecting the SAFE Act, the Senate preserved a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world at a time of record global displacement.

In mid-2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that global forced displacement had reached levels unseen since the end of World War II. UNHCR estimates that almost 60 million people have been forced from their homes as a result of war, violence, and oppression. At that time, nearly 20 million had crossed international borders (the numbers are certainly higher now). The Syrian refugee crisis is a largest driver of that displacement, with 4.3 million refugees and 6.6 million people internally displaced. But Syria is not alone. UNHCR has also reported that within the past five years at least 15 other conflicts have erupted or reignited, contributing to high levels of forced displacement in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Meanwhile, violence in Central America is forcing more and more people — mostly families and unaccompanied children — to seek asylum protection in the United States.

While resettlement to a third country will never be the sole solution to forced displacement — and only a small percentage of refugees globally will even be considered — it is a program that saves lives. It offers around one percent of refugees a chance for new hope and opportunities. It also offers some relief to the countries — often those that are closest to the conflict and that are likewise impoverished, unstable, or war-torn — that shoulder the greatest burden of hosting refugees. The top refugee host countries in 2015, according to UNHCR, were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia.

The United States has traditionally been the most generous of all resettlement-receiving countries, accepting approximately 50 percent of UNHCR’s global referrals after it undertakes its own thorough security and vetting process. In FY 2015, the United States resettled almost 70,000 refugees. In September, President Obama announced that the United States will strive to resettle 85,000 in FY 2016, with 10,000 of them being Syrian. With UNHCR estimating that 10 percent of Syrian refugees (roughly 400,000) are in need of resettlement, even with the President’s goals, the global need remains enormous.

In evaluating cases for resettlement, UNHCR and the United States seek to prioritize the most vulnerable: women and children at risk, survivors of torture or violence, people with severe medical needs or ongoing protection concerns, etc. Resettlement can be the only salvation for survivors of torture who may never be able to return to their home countries and, as a result of the long-term impacts of torture and other traumatic experiences, may require specialized medical and mental health care. The Center for Victims of Torture estimates that approximately 44 percent of refugees in the United States are either direct survivors of torture or the children or spouses of torture survivors.

In rejecting the SAFE Act, the Senate preserved this lifeline for some of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria and Iraq. It is, of course, essential that the US Refugee Admissions Program undergo regular evaluation to identify gaps or vulnerabilities in the system and for the relevant administrative agencies to have the tools and resources they need to address them. But as many national security experts have verified, these efforts toward sound, smart, and secure policies can continue without drastic measures that would dismantle the program’s mission and prevent it from saving the lives the people it was designed to protect. 

About the Author(s)

Annie Sovcik

Director of the Washington Office of the Center for Victims of Torture