In the News

Refugee debate roils Senate races

Refugee debate roils Senate races

By Lisa Hagen - The Hill

The issue of whether the United States should continue to accept refugees from Syria is roiling campaigns for the Senate.

Several Republicans up for reelection in critical states have called for refugees to be denied entry into the United States following the terrorist attacks in Paris. One of the attackers may have entered Europe in a group of refugees.

A few Democratic Senate candidates have made similar calls, though a number of them have yet to take a position.

Here’s a roundup of where the candidates stand.


Both Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and her likely Democratic opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, say Syrian refugees shouldn’t be permitted into the country.

Ayotte, the vulnerable first-term GOP incumbent, sent a letter to President Obama along with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) saying refugees should only be allowed into the United States unless it is “100 percent” certain they do not represent a threat.

Hassan is the only Democratic governor to come out against resettlement so far. Her spokesmansaid resettlement should be paused “until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees … is as strong as possible to ensure the safety of the American people.”

Democrats are pinning their hopes on Hassan to defeat Ayotte, viewing New Hampshire as a winnable swing state in 2016.


Kirk, who’s considered one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents up for reelection, joined Ayotte and the other senators in urging the president to hold off on resettling Syrian refugees.

The Democrats running to take on Kirk in the general election have expressed support for resettlement.

The candidate with backing from the national party, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), said she “actually signed on to take more than what the president proposed,” according to WLS-TV. “I signed on for two hundred thousand refugees.”

Duckworth’s main rival, former Chicago Urban League president Andrea Zopp, also backs resettlement, though she called for background checks.

“With over a decade of experience in law enforcement, I know better than most that we need to do the proper background checks, but banning Syrian refugees from Illinois makes no sense,” Zopp said in a statement.


Wisconsin is another hotly contested battleground in the battle for the Senate.

Sen. Ron Johnson(R-Wis.), a top Democratic target, has stressed the need for the administration to fully vet any refugees entering the United States.

“To the extent this administration allows Syrian refugees into America, it should be done using a common sense prioritization of those most in need and who pose no threat. The first priority should be women and children relatives of Syrian-American citizens who would be financially responsible for their relatives," he said in a statement.

Johnson’s likely Democratic opponent, former Sen. Russ Feingold, said the administration should make sure the resettlement process is “as thorough and complete as possible,” but added that the U.S. should not “not give in to the belief that those fleeing terrorism or seeking freedom are not welcome.”


Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a vulnerable first-term incumbent, was quick to call for a suspension of resettlement.

“I call on the administration to immediately halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees into the United States until there has been a thorough review of DHS and State Department vetting procedures to ensure that no terrorists or individuals with links to Islamist extremist groups make it into the United States, as they have in France,” he said in the release.

Former Gov. Ted Strickland, the Democrat who is favored to take on Portman, has yet to make a statement on the refugees.

But Strickland’s top primary opponent, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld,called for "vigorous" vetting of refugees, adding in a statement that, "as a nation we can welcome refugees, while upholding our values and ensuring our security."


Florida’s Senate race is shaping up as one of the most competitive in the country, with crowded primaries taking shape for both parties.

On the Republican side, Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “dramatically enhance our engagement with the enemy to accomplish one clear objective — to immediately destroy ISIS and its partners in terror.”

Another Republican candidate, Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, stood behind Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who announced Monday that his state wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees.

A third GOP challenger, Rep. Ron DeSantis (Fla.), sent a release questioning where the two Democratic candidates — Reps. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), the establishment-backed candidate, and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), the liberal firebrand — stand on the issue.

“Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want the United States to take tens of thousands of Syrian refugees despite the terrorist attacks in Paris and the government's inability to screen them for terrorist sympathies. Do Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson agree with them?” DeSantis wrote in a statement.

Murphy in a statement Tuesday said the U.S. needs “incredibly tough safety and security requirements on any refugees entering our country in order to protect our nation.”

Grayson said in a statement that he supports resettlement of Syrian refugees, while adding that they “should be thoroughly vetted before being admitted into the US.”


Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the Intelligence Committee and will likely have a competitive race, said on Monday: "The Syrian refugee program should be suspended until the American people are satisfied that they know exactly who the President is admitting into the country via this program."


Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called for the United States to “reexamine” its national security practices when it comes to permitting Syrian refugees into the country.

“While most refugees are innocent people in dire situations, unfortunately we presently have no fully reliable way of vetting those who come from chaotic terrorist havens such as Syria,” Toomey said in a statement. “As a result, we should suspend refugee admissions from Syria until we are able to determine with full confidence that there are no security risks among them.”

All three of the Democratic Senate candidates in Pennsylvania have to some extent expressed support for resettlement, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Katie McGinty, the former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf who’s seen as one of the favored candidates, said in a statement that, "We cannot lose sight that the refugees fleeing Syria are the ones who are trying to escape the same people who unleashed the unimaginable violence that erupted in Paris.” She also said that the government should allocate resources to screen the refugees.

Another Democrat, Rep. Joe Sestak, touted his experience serving as the director of the Navy's antiterrorism unit, and emphasized that screening refugees is "both capable of permitting humanitarian refugees while denying acceptance to those whom we find are not adequately screenable."

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who’s running more of a dark horse campaign, said in astatement that that the country should “keep our doors open to those escaping unimaginable violence and hardship in search of a better life."