Engel Remarks on Syrian Refugees and Foreign Fighters

“We can stop the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS and safeguard against attacks here at home without succumbing to panic and xenophobia.”

November 18, 2015

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- As Delivered - 

WASHINGTON, DC—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at a joint hearing of the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees on the rise of radicalism, growing terrorist sanctuaries, and the threat to the United States and American interests abroad:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  Chairman McCaul, Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Thompson, thank you all.  I’m glad that our Committees have come together to take a look at, what  I agree, is a major element of the threat posed by ISIS.  And I hope by putting all of our heads together, and by hearing from our witnesses, we can find some answers to some critical questions.  How do we stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria?  How do we make sure these fighters aren’t coming back or sneaking into the United States with designs to harm innocent Americans?

“Since this hearing was announced, of course, the complexion of this debate has changed a great deal.  We are all shaken by the attacks in Paris.  It’s deeply troubling that ISIS was able to orchestrate such a complicated attack.  And that both homegrown terrorists from Europe, and possibly individuals posing as refugees, were able to carry out such brutality.

“A tragedy like this invariably spurs us to action.  And during my question time, I hope we can get into some specifics. How do we improve our detection methods to get past the encryption ISIS is using to communicate?   How do we counter their use of social media to spread propaganda and recruit fighters from the West?  What support do communities here at home and overseas need to thwart ISIS recruitment?  Are countries doing what they can to stop the flow of their citizens to Syria and Iran and block those trying to come back?  How do we empower law enforcement to grapple with this problem while respecting civil liberties?

“I look forward to a good conversation about what we do now.  Because it’s up to us whether we will stand with our allies and partners and effectively confront an enemy, or allow fear and panic to make us forget who we are and what we stand for as a nation.  And I’d like to say a bit about that, because I’m unsettled by what I’ve heard from some people in Congress this week.

“I read a poll the other day.  The question was quote, 'What’s your attitude towards allowing political refugees to come into the US?’ unquote.  Sixty-seven point four agreed with the response, ‘With conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out.’  More than two thirds.  ‘Try to keep them out.’

“That poll was conducted in the summer of 1938. And the question in its entirety was, ‘What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come into the US?’  European Jews.  More than two thirds of Americans thought we should just close the gates just four months before Kristallnacht.

“And so less than a year later, that attitude sealed the fate of the men, women, and children onboard the ocean liner St. Louis.  Nearly a thousand refugees, most of them German Jews, boarded the ship with the hope of finding safety across the Atlantic.  After being turned away in Cuba, those onboard the St. Louis turned their sights towards the United States.  They came so close to Miami they could see the lights.  Their cables to the White House and State Department begging for safe haven went unanswered.  The St. Louis steamed back to Europe.

“Six hundred twenty passengers ended up back on the continent.  254 of them died in the Holocaust.  Onboard the St. Louis, they had passed close enough to Miami to see the city’s lights.

“Syrians are fleeing their homes because life in Syria for the last four years has meant not knowing when Assad will drop the next barrel bombs or release poison gas.  It has meant watching community after community fall under the merciless and medieval rule of ISIS.  Often with just the clothes on their backs, men, women, and children are struggling to escape, not because they agree with terrorists, but because terrorists have destroyed their lives and staying behind could very well ensure their deaths. 

“Let’s remember: these people are the victims of ISIS.  They’re fleeing from ISIS.  They are not ISIS.  So will we now slam the door in their faces?

“The process the United States uses to screen refugees is the most rigorous investigation of any individual trying to enter this country: a biometric screening to match their fingerprints and vital statistics against any known troublemakers; interviews with the Homeland Security Department; background checks by the State Department, the Defense Department, and the FBI; a medical screening; an orientation program; and we all know there are other measures in place that we can’t discuss in this open setting.  It can take years.

“Do we need to ensure we’re following these procedures to the letter?  Absolutely.  Do we need to enhance procedures?  Absolutely.  Can we abandon our values as a nation out of fear?  Absolutely not.

“My grandparents, all four of them, were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.  Like millions of others a century ago, they arrived in New York before World War I—in New York Harbor—and saw on our country’s front doorstep the most enduring symbol of freedom the world has ever known:

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, with her name

Mother of Exiles.

“The Statue of Liberty.  The words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

“The huddled masses we are talking about: Syrians, Yazidis, and Kurds who are desperate.  And when I hear suggestions that maybe we should only take Christians, or that all these orphans would be such a burden, or that state or another state wants nothing to do with these refugees whatsoever, I’m reminded of the St. Louis and what happened to her passengers.  And I think of what we could have done differently.  I hope that decades from now, our successors don’t look back to the year 2015 with the same regrets.

“So let me say in conclusion, we can do the smart thing and the right thing at the same time.  We can stop the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS and safeguard against attacks here at home without succumbing to panic and xenophobia.  Let’s choose the path forward that protects the United States and that defeats our enemies without abandoning our values and repeating history’s mistakes.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I yield back.”