A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Refugees

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2015-12-07

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    DURBIN. Madam President, there is also a question about what we can do to keep our country safe in terms of people coming into our country.

    Each year we admit about 70,000 refugees from all over the world. The No. 1 country providing refugees to the United States--Burma. Most people wouldn't have guessed that. About one-fourth of our refugees come from Burma.

    How do they get into the United States as refugees? They are first identified by the United Nations Council on Refugees, and then they start a process, a background check and process. This goes on for 18 months to 24 months. It involves repetitive fingerprinting and checking, interviews, examinations, questions. Then, finally, after 24 months, they may be allowed to come to the United States as a refugee. About 70,000 a year come into our country. I have met a lot of them. They are from all over the world--Africa, Asia, all over the world. And now we have a focus on them, a laserlike focus on them.

    Some are arguing that the way to keep America safe is to stop refugees from coming in from Syria. Well, we know Syria has been engaged in a civil war for more than 4 years. We know some 4 million people have been displaced. I was in Greece a few weeks back and saw numbers coming across the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece. These Syrian and some Iraqi refugees are desperate people. You literally see a family walking--mother, father, carrying babies, walking toddlers-- with all that they own on their backs. That is it. We stopped to talk to some of them, and they told the story of what it was like to live in Syria amidst a civil war, what it was like to have barrel bombs going off in your town--the damage that it did, the killing that it did. Many of them had lost members of their families. They were running away from that violence--not only from Assad, the head of Syria, but from ISIL as well.

    Some of them decide to ask to become refugees in the United States. They know that if they ask, they are in for a long, long haul--18 to 24 months. Some have made it, fewer than 2,000, during the last 4 years. Some have made it. Not a single Syrian refugee coming into the United States since this war began has ever been charged with terrorism. It just hasn't happened.

    What happens with other visitors to the United States? Well, we welcome visitors. Certainly we do. Many of us look forward to visiting their countries too. About 55 million foreign travelers come to the United States each year; about 20 million are from visa waiver countries--38 countries where we have a special relationship and say: You don't need a specific visa to come to our country because we have this agreement between us; you may freely travel to the United States on what we call a visa waiver. That is about 20 million of the 55 million.

    We can do better when it comes to these visitors on both sides-- Americans traveling overseas and foreigners coming into this country. We need to make sure that before a person gets on a plane, we check their fingerprints, for example. That is a pretty easy thing to do these days. Just put your hands down; it reads them and cross-checks against the data bank of suspected people, suspected criminals, and suspected terrorists. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of people will have no problem whatsoever, but it is a way, just like taking off your shoes, to make sure that we are safer. It is a little inconvenient but worth it.

    What we have said on the Democratic side is that if you want to make America safe--and we all do--it is far better to focus on foreign travelers and visa waivers, and make sure we are doing the proper checks before the person gets on the airplane. I believe we should do that. When I travel to their countries, I am prepared to face the same fingerprint check. It is not too much to ask in the 21st century, with the terrorism and violence that we face.

    All these things will make us safer, but focusing on 70,000 refugees, among which a few hundred are Syrian, instead of looking at the larger group of 55 million foreign travelers--did you know that most of the terrorists in Paris, France, were carrying European passports which would have allowed them to come to the United States without a visa? So if we want to make our country safer--and I do--let's do things that are practical and thoughtful.

    [[Page S8432]] Incidentally, those who come to the United States on visa waivers from 38 countries around the world can currently legally buy firearms. What is that all about? Our law prevents foreign visitors who come in on a visa from buying firearms, but a loophole allows those who qualify under the Visa Waiver Program to come as visitors to buy a firearm. I think we can do better there as well.

    Let's tighten up the Visa Waiver Program, and make sure we do the proper checks so dangerous people don't ever get on the plane to come to the United States. Let's make sure as well that if you have a visa waiver and you come to the United States as a visitor, you are not going to be purchasing firearms. Finally, if you are on a suspected terrorist no-fly list, you should be disqualified from buying a gun or an explosive, period. Those are three practical steps. I think we ought to move forward and do that on a bipartisan basis. It will be something to keep in mind and make America much safer.

    In closing, some of the suggestions being made as these Republican Presidential candidates try to out-trump one another are very sad. They reflect the ignorance of history and a willingness to ignore the values of this country. When I hear some of the awful things being said about people of the Islamic faith--I think about a dinner I went to Saturday night. It was in Chicago; it was by the Children's Heart Research Foundation. They were saluting a number of doctors in the Chicago area who were extraordinary in saving the lives of children. One of them is a current surgeon. He started with Children's Memorial Hospital; he is now with the Advocate hospital system. He is considered to be the best in Chicago. If your baby--and 1 out of 100 are--is born with a congenital heart defect, this is the doctor you want to see the child; this is the surgeon you want to save your child's life. This doctor is a Muslim. He is an American. He is an important part of America. Those who are making negative statements about all people in the Islamic faith, calling for registration or exclusion or whatever it may be-- their statements and views are not consistent with who we are as Americans. The President said as much last night, and I agree.

    Madam President, I yield the floor.

    I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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