The Slatest

Congress Is Slowly Changing Its Tune on Refugees. GOP Candidates Are Not.

A young girl is helped moments after she arrive with other Syrian and Iraqi migrants on the island of Lesbos from Turkey on October 14, 2015 in Sikaminias, Greece.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Republicans wasted little time finding an easy target to vilify: Syrian refugees. The party’s White House hopefuls—from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—looked at the millions fleeing their war-torn country and saw potential terrorists. The GOP-led House quickly jumped into action, rushing through a bill—backed by nearly 50 Democrats—that would wrap the refugee resettlement program in the U.S. in enough red tape to effectively strangle it.

As has been well-covered by now, that Paris non-sequitur was dangerously short-sighted: The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris were mostly French and Belgian nationals—and while there was a Syrian passport found near one of their bodies, authorities now believe that it was fake and may have been an intentional attempt by ISIS to create the refugee-themed freakout that ultimately happened. Closing our borders to refugees would only provide the Islamic State with a bigger pool of frustrated, marginalized young Muslims to try to radicalize. Furthermore, there may be no more difficult way for a would-be terrorist to enter the United States right now than to pose as a Syrian refugee and undergo an extensive review process that can take two years. At its best, then, the anti-refugee push is yet another depressing example of security theater; at its worst, it is deliberate fearmongering at the expense of our own long-term safety. Fortunately, the effort faces a Senate filibuster and a presidential veto, but Republicans haven’t ruled out using the threat of a government shutdown to try to get their way later this month.

The good news is that it appears that cooler heads might finally be prevailing in Washington. This week a group of prominent national security experts—including conservatives Henry Kissinger, who served as Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, and Michael Chertoff, who served as George W. Bush’s Homeland Security chief—publicly urged lawmakers to reconsider. There are signs that they are. Politico reported Wednesday that a bipartisan “movement is emerging to stop the refugee crackdown,” and instead refocus security efforts on a White House-supported plan to tighten gaps in an unrelated visa waiver program that allows tourists to enter the United States far easier than refugees. One chief reason for the turning tide is that backers of the anti-refugee bill were originally unaware that it would also pose problems for many Iraqis who served as interpreters for the U.S. military, collateral damage that lawmakers would have been aware of if they had done even the most cursory research before sounding the alarm.

The bad news? Don’t expect to hear Republican hopefuls singing a different tune on the campaign trail. In polls taken in the wake of the attack—and when the GOP’s anti-refugee rhetoric was at its peak—a majority of Americans and nearly 70 percent of Republicans said they wanted to bar all Syrian refugees from the United States. Making life more difficult on refugees might be bad policy, but the GOP field has every reason to think it’s good politics. After telling Americans to be terrified of Syrian Muslims, it’s also unclear how the candidates could convince voters otherwise even if they wanted to. Someone like Jeb Bush or John Kasich could try to finally act like the adult in the room, but such an on-second-thought reversal would hand a fresh round of anti-establishment ammunition to Trump, Cruz and co. That is the last thing a guy like Jeb Bush wants now.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.