Durbin Calls on Gov. Rauner to Meet With Syrian Refugee Families in Illinois Before Thanksgiving
After Secs. Johnson and Kerry detail screening and resettlement process, Durbin asks Gov. Rauner to drop opposition to children and families fleeing ISIS terrorism themselves
CHICAGO—U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today sent a letter to Governor Bruce Rauner calling on him to drop his opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in the state of Illinois. After the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week, Republican governors and members of Congress rushed to block children, women, and families who are themselves fleeing ISIS terrorism. On Friday, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry sent a letter to Gov. Rauner detailing the screening and resettlement process for refugees, who are the most thoroughly vetted of any travelers to our country.
Durbin is also calling on Governor Rauner to meet with Syrian refugee families in Illinois in advance of this week’s Thanksgiving holiday, which was originally celebrated by European settlers who centuries ago sought refuge from persecution on foreign shores.
“Our shared highest priority is the safety of the people of Illinois, but let’s be clear about where the greatest terrorism threat lies: not with children and families fleeing ISIS, but in glaring loopholes in the law that could allow what happened in Paris to happen somewhere in America,” wrote Durbin. “I urge you to end your opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Illinois and instead join me in working to close loopholes in the Visa Waiver Program and federal gun laws that truly endanger the safety of Illinoisans.”
Full text of Durbin’s letter to Governor Rauner:
November 23, 2015
The Honorable Bruce Rauner
Office of the Governor
207 State House
Springfield, IL 62706
Dear Governor Rauner:
I urge you to end your opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Illinois and instead join me in working to close loopholes in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and federal gun laws that truly endanger the safety of Illinoisans.
The conflict in Syria is the epicenter of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. More than half of Syria’s 23 million people have been forced from their homes, and more than four million are registered as refugees, including approximately two million Syrian children. This tragedy was seared in our memory by the heartbreaking image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean.
The United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees, and Illinois has played an important role in this proud history. Since the international community’s tragic failure to shelter Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi genocide, the American people have welcomed millions of refugees fleeing war and totalitarian regimes. We should not abandon the good work of generations of Americans who came before us.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson sent you the attached letter responding to your concerns about the security vetting of Syrian refugees. The facts are clear. Refugees are the most carefully vetted of all travelers to the United States, with in-person interviews and extensive biometric, biographic, and intelligence checks involving numerous agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defense. No refugees are admitted to the United States until after successful completion of this stringent security screening regime, which can take 18-24 months. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the United States has admitted more than 2,000 Syrian refugees. None have been charged with involvement in terrorism, and only two percent are single men of military age.
Please during this holiday season take the time to meet the Syrian refugees living in Illinois and personally learn their plights. You will learn that the careless and mean-spirited rhetoric from many political leaders does not reflect the reality of their sad lives.
Our shared highest priority is the safety of the people of Illinois, but let’s be clear about where the greatest terrorism threat lies: not with children and families fleeing ISIS, but in glaring loopholes in the law that could allow what happened in Paris to happen somewhere in America. One significant concern is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows about 20 million foreign nationals, more than one-third of all foreign visitors, to travel to the United States before checking biometrics like fingerprints. Chicago, which hosts about 1.4 million foreign visitors every year and is home to the busiest airport in the world, is at particular risk. Every participant in the Paris attacks who has been publicly identified held a passport from a VWP country. Terrorists such as Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” and Zacarias Moussaoui, a 9/11 co-conspirator, have sought to enter the United States through the VWP.
Only biographic (name-based) checks are conducted before VWP travelers are allowed to board airplanes and travel to the United States. Prior to departure, there are no checks against databases that use biometrics such as fingerprints. Fingerprint checks are conducted upon arrival in the United States, which is too late for a terrorist who might try to detonate an explosive on a plane. As U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said:
“I would tell you, from a threat standpoint, I’m probably more concerned with the visa waiver program today. Were I in Europe already, and I wanted to go the United States, and were I not on a watch list or a no-fly list and I wanted to get there, the likelihood is I would use the visa waiver program before I would try to pawn myself off as a refugee.”
Vulnerabilities in the VWP are aggravated by a loophole in federal law that permits VWP travelers to buy firearms. Current law prohibits visa holders from other countries from purchasing guns, but excludes travelers from the 38 VWP countries. In 1998, I authored a federal law that prohibits visiting foreign nationals from buying or possessing a firearm in the United States if the foreigner “has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa.” In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that under the statute VWP travelers can legally purchase firearms because they have not technically “been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa.”
Last week, I introduced S. 2323, the Visa Waiver Program Firearms Clarification Act, legislation that would close this loophole and clarify that the prohibition on buying firearms applies to foreign visitors whether they enter with a visa or not.
Congress also must address another critical gap in our gun laws. Current federal law prohibits nine categories of dangerous people from possessing firearms (e.g., felons, the mentally unstable, fugitives, etc.) but not suspected terrorists. The Government Accountability Office found that from 2004-2014, people who were on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist tried to buy guns from American gun dealers at least 2,233 times. In 2,043 of those cases – 91 percent of the time – these suspected terrorists were able to successfully buy the gun. I am an original cosponsor of S. 551, the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015, which would close this “terror gap” in our federal gun laws.
In conclusion, I respectfully request that you support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Illinois and encourage your Republican allies in Congress to work with Democrats to address the critical gaps in our security infrastructure outlined above. Rather than targeting a few thousand refugees who are themselves fleeing from terrorism and are the most thoroughly vetted travelers to the United States, you should focus on 20 million VWP travelers who travel to our country and our state every year without adequate security checks, as well as an unknown number of suspected terrorists who are able to legally purchase firearms and dangerous explosives.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
RICHARD J. DURBIN
United States Senator
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