Immigration experts give President Obama Pinocchios for his claim that the U.S. has never used “religious tests” to determine which refugees get passage to America.
Russian and Ethiopian Jews, Armenians Christians and Catholics from Vietnam have all been moved to the front of the line in previous eras based on their faith, according to historians. And giving one religious group preference is tantamount to sending others to the back of the lines, noted immigration experts.
“Clearly, there have been policies that said we will consider certain people from certain religions,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
“I don’t know that I would say put Christians at the front of the line in every case, but I would say, as a policy, to put religious minorities first.”
Obama spoke after more than 30 governors and virtually all Republican presidential candidates called for a moratorium on Syrian refugees amid fears that ISIS terrorists may have infiltrated the desperate wave of mostly Muslims pouring out of the Middle East. Obama has called for the U.S. to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees through an expedited process. Critics, who say it is impossible to screen them, objected on national security concerns, but Obama likened their opposition to religious discrimination. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate, has proposed a "religious test" to screen out Muslim refugees from countries where terrorist groups have a strong presence and where applicants cannot be properly vetted.
“When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution -- that’s shameful,” Obama said, in an apparent swipe at senators and GOP presidential candidates Cruz and Marco Rubio, both children of Cuban immigrants. “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
But under the 1990 law known as the Lautenberg Amendment, the federal government initially granted a presumption of refugee eligibility for Jews and Christians fleeing the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. Nowadays, the amendment, extended last year by Obama, prioritizes the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities who flee Iran.
Obama, his critics and some experts appear to have taken at least three sides in the debate. The president believes not taking in Muslim refugees is religious discrimination; critics say doing so could expose Americans to Islamic extremists who hide among them and still others who spoke to FoxNews.com say religious minorities, which in the Middle East are Christians, deserve priority.
The State Department has even indicated that Syria’s Christian community, which made up an estimated 10 percent of that country’s population prior to the civil war, and has faced horrific brutality from Islamic State, should get preferential treatment based on their status.
“Due to the unique needs of vulnerable religious minority communities, the State Department has prioritized the resettlement of Syrian Christian refugees and other religious minorities fleeing the conflict,” wrote the department’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, Knox Thames, in a recent email.
Any religious minority is at greater risk and therefore due extra consideration, said Randall Everett, president of 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting religious persecution.
“I don’t know that I would say put Christians at the front of the line in every case, but I would say, as a policy, to put religious minorities first,” Everett said. “In Iraq and Syria, Christians and Yazidis are the minority, and their situation is dire.”
The whole argument may be moot anyway, given that determining anyone’s true identity – much less their religion – may not always be possible in the chaotic and war-torn region where phony documents are everywhere and desperate people and evil terrorists will both say whatever they must to achieve their goal.
“It would not be unprecedented to choose refugees in part on the basis of their religion,” said Jessica Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies. “ Nevertheless, a program to focus resettlement on Syrian Christians is still risky, for the same reasons as one that does not specify religion. We still have no way to ascertain the true identities of the applicants, or verify their claims.”