I’ll never forget two Iraqi citizens who I served alongside in Iraq.
As I was serving as a combat surgeon, they were both working on behalf of the United States as interpreters in our hospital in Iraq. After assisting the U.S. in this way, their lives were in jeopardy if they remained in their own country, so it was my honor to sponsor and assist them in seeking asylum in America. Having worked with these gentlemen for one year under extreme and often intense circumstances in Iraq, I was confident in their character as they went through extensive vetting before coming to the United States. Today, they and their families are U.S. citizens. Their children are bilingual and beautiful. Both men are practicing physicians here in our United States now – productive citizens and proud Americans.
On the other hand, the harsh reality is that there are many in those regions who want to bring harm to our nation. I also witnessed this firsthand serving in Iraq. Regardless of the kindness we extended — especially as physicians and nurses — many of those we cared for expressed gratitude for their medical care while at the same time maintaining their desire to kill us.
Americans are increasingly at risk at home and abroad. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee where I regularly receive classified briefings, I am keenly aware of these threats. Our intelligence agencies have identified certain unstable countries as higher risk sources of terrorists attempting to enter the United States. Our intelligence officials have also, for some time, confirmed the inadequacy of our current vetting procedures. Attempts by declared jihadists to blend in with refugees are well understood.
Last Friday, the administration issued an executive action ordering a 90-day pause and reevaluation of our screening process of people traveling to the U.S. from seven war-torn countries and a 120-day pause and reevaluation of our refugee resettlement program. The nations identified do not yet have the ability to provide sufficient data on those attempting to enter the United States and have been designated by the Department of Homeland Security as “countries of concern” under the Obama administration. While continuing scrutiny as to what nations qualify for this designation would be advisable, this is a first step towards strengthening our security procedures.
A temporary pause and reevaluation of refugee programs is consistent with the previous administration’s actions to increase the security of the Iraqi refugee program after discovering a terror plot in Kentucky being launched by two Iraqi refugees. Thoughtful clarifications are needed to address any unintended consequences of the administration’s order, but taking a comprehensive look at our vetting procedures is a commonsense security measure. Our leaders’ foremost duty is to protect and defend this nation. Conducting a systematic review to ensure we are doing so to the best of our ability is both reasonable and prudent.
Unfortunately, the rollout of the executive order caused unnecessary chaos and confusion. Lawful, permanent residents should not be detained at our airports nor should refugees who have undergone extensive vetting be denied entry to the country where they seek refuge. Additionally, I believe those that have stood in support of our men and women in uniform deserve special consideration and accommodation, and I urge the administration to make resolving the cases of individuals who served alongside U.S. troops a top priority. Currently, the Department of Defense is compiling a list of properly vetted Iraqis to be eligible for exemption from the temporary pause. I support that effort and will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure it is efficiently and effectively executed.
As a nation, upholding the fundamental right to freedom of religion and providing refuge to the persecuted and oppressed are pillars of our identity as the United States of America. It’s part of our DNA as a nation. We must continue to cherish and uphold this rich heritage, while also providing for the security of our nation and the safety of all our people: both citizens and refugees alike. These twin goals are not — and should not be — mutually exclusive.
At the end of the day, I believe the bottom-line is this: our compassion must not come at the cost of our national security — but our security must also never cost us our national identity. As a nation, let us take a deep breath, remedy any unintended consequences, and continue working to enhance the safety of our families while continuing to be a beacon of hope for persecuted people of the world who seek refuge in free lands.