Community activists expressed their frustration with Indian American Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., and Hindu American Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for their Nov. 19 vote on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which essentially blocks Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. for at least six months.
HR 4038, introduced in the House by Rep. Mike McCaul, a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, would prevent any refugee from Syria or Iraq from entering the U.S. until the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence certify that they are not dangerous. The bill was introduced in the House after members of the terror group of the Islamic State attacked several venues in Paris Nov. 13, killing 130 people.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has said the measure – which would require a high-level official’s sign-off on thousands of refugees – is untenable. The measure would place a temporary block on refugees entering the U.S. as DHS, the FBI and National Intelligence certify that they are safe.
Noting that the measure would gravely impact “thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people,” President Barack Obama has said he will veto the measure. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has vowed to block the bill in the Senate.
Forty-seven Democrats – including Bera and Gabbard – voted in favor of the bill.
“I am very disappointed by their votes,” Indian American racial justice activist Deepa Iyer told India-West. “I really had hoped that all Democrats and the Asian Pacific American Caucus would not have voted that way,” she said.
Iyer is the author of “We Too Sing America,” which examines the alleged state-sanctioned racial profiling of South Asian Americans, following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people. The book was released by New Press publishers in October.
Iyer, the former long-time executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, stated that HR 4038 was “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policy, which continues the drumbeat we have been hearing for the past 14 years.”
In an e-mail to India-West, Indian American community activist Anirvan Chatterjee said: “Reps. Gabbard and Bera took a surprisingly anti-immigrant, anti-refugee stance this week when they voted to block Syrian refugees.”
“It’s disappointing to see mainstream Democrats suddenly oppose President Obama to side with Donald Trump-style xenophobic politics – even as our community members are being victimized by a new wave of xenophobic attacks,” said Chatterjee.
Indian American actor Kal Penn – who worked in the White House Office of Public Engagement during Obama’s first term, tweeted Nov. 19: “Disgusted to see some House Democrats join crazy Republicans in stoking mass hysteria on the refugee issue.”
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans noted Nov. 19 that it was “deeply disappointed” by the passage of the American SAFE Act. “We call on the Senate to defeat this measure and instead work to ensure that our nation upholds our American values by welcoming refugees with respect and dignity, and not turning our backs on those fleeing persecution,” said the organization in a press statement.
“Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles condemns the ignorance, as well as the xenophobia and Islamaphobia, underlying today's House vote to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States,” said Karin Wang, vice president of Programs and Communications for Advancing Justice-LA.
“We are extremely disappointed that in this hour of great need, our elected officials in Washington choose fear over compassion, and we urge the Senate and president to ensure that the United States continues to welcome those seeking refuge,” said Wang.
Bera and Gabbard defended their vote on the measure. “It is critical that our first priority is to keep America safe – that is why I voted today for a bill to ensure that all Syrian refugees are thoroughly vetted,” said Bera in a press statement. “However, we can’t let the terrorists win and influence who we are as Americans.”
“Our country has always been a place for those fleeing violence or oppression, and we must stay true to those values. This additional screening step will ensure that we know those coming into the country are not a security threat,” said Bera, the sole Indian American in Congress who is serving his second term.
In an interview with KCRA 3 in Sacramento, Bera said Syrian refugees must be prioritized for security threats. “A three-year-old orphan is not a security threat. It should not take her 18 months to get through the process.” Priority should also be given to those who have helped the U.S., such as interpreters, said the congressman.
Gabbard, who identifies as a Hindu, said in a press statement: “Voting for this bill was not a vote against refugees. Rather, it was a vote for bringing refugees into our country safely.”
“When looking at how to vote on this measure, I considered two things: the safety and security of the American people; and the long-term viability and continuation of our country serving as a place of refuge for those who are truly in need of shelter,” said the congresswoman from Hawaii, who has received much Indian American support.
“It would be a double disaster if someone who came to America as a refugee ended up engaging in a terrorist act. First, it would cost the lives of innocent Americans. Second, it could lead to the complete shutdown of our refugee program for a long, long time. This would be extremely unfortunate,” said Gabbard.
“I want to make sure that doesn't happen. It's important for anyone who really cares about keeping our refugee programs open to seriously consider the negative impact to such programs if a terrorist attack occurred and a refugee were involved,” she said.