Rick Nolan quotes the Pope while voting to turn away Syrian refugees

December 15, 2015

 The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris fueled a potent anti-refugee backlash in the United States. The fact that refugees are fleeing Syria to escape Islamic extremists is apparently lost on the fear-mongering lunatic fringe, including Eighth District Representative Rick Nolan.


Nolan was one of 47 Democrats to join Republicans in passing HR4038, American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which imposes redundant and unfunded layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous vetting process by requiring that:
•The directors of Homeland Security, National Intelligence and FBI certify every single refugee;
•The FBI conduct a separate background check and the director certify the investigation is sufficient to determine whether the refugee is a security threat;
•Homeland Security file monthly reports with 13 congressional committees, detailing how each refugee case was handled, and file yearly risk analysis reports of every certification.


Syrian refugees already undergo several layers of intense scrutiny that typically takes at least two years. If there is even a hint that something might be amiss, the application is immediately discarded. The screening process is so strict that, of more than 22,247 Syrian referred by the United Nations, just 2,290 have been admitted to the US, none of whom have been implicated in terrorist activity.


In interviews the day before the bill was sent to the floor, Nolan cited this stringent process while voicing support for Syrian refugees, so his vote came as a surprise. Not that it’s the first time he has flip-flopped on an important issue or offered dizzying logic and word salad explanations, but attempting to justify his vote by quoting Pope Francis’ call to welcome refugees is a new low, even for Nolan.


“As Pope Francis said to Congress, we must respond to the ongoing refugee crisis ‘in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”


Nolan’s Facebook page exploded with angry comments in the days following his vote, many calling him a “spineless coward” for playing politics with the lives of refugees, noting his press release made no sense and actually contained arguments for why he should have voted against the SAFE Act.


In an interview with the Brainerd Dispatch [“Nolan Defends Syrian Refugee Position,” November 24], Nolan denied that his vote contradicted his earlier statements. “People were judging their understanding of the bill based on the rhetoric that’s going on between Fox and MSNBC, and not many people were looking at the actual bill.”


Among those who must not have read the bill are the Obama Administration and almost 100 non-governmental organizations, including the American Refugee Committee, American Immigration Lawyers Association, US Council of Catholic Bishops, World Relief, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. All insist the SAFE Act does nothing to improve security, wastes money and resources, and shuts down the program for Syrian refugees.


Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish non-profit refugee assistance organization founded in 1881, agrees with the US Attorney General and all three national security agencies that the certification process is unworkable and requires each agency to review 100 refugee files every day.


“I have read the bill and my understanding comes from working with refugee issues since 1998. To say this bill does nothing to change the process or prevent us from admitting refugees from Syria and Iraq flies in the face of what supporters of the bill have said...This is the beginning of efforts to end the refugee resettlement program.


“The certification requirement for the three directors would bring the program to a halt. First, each agency has to decide what the language—which is vague—in the bill means and develop regulations or policy memo, and then all three must agree on procedure. This would take years.


“Each [agency] would have to certify that [each refugee] poses no threat. How can anyone possibly predict future behavior of another? No one could certify that. And is personally reviewing the files of refugees who have already undergone years of intense scrutiny by trained professionals the best use of time for high-level officials?”


Thoughtful legislation is usually developed through the committee process—i.e., holding hearings, seeking testimony by agencies and stakeholders, etc. But the SAFE Act was quickly rammed through the House with no opportunity for input. It was introduced on November 17, sent directly to the floor on November 19 under a closed rule (no amendments), and approved after just one hour of floor debate. Nolan, a self-proclaimed proponent of “regular order,” voted for the bill without a word of complaint about this decidedly irregular process.


Rick Nolan can quote the Pope all he likes, but it doesn’t change the fact that he voted for a xenophobic bill that does nothing but harm innocent people who have already lost everything and are desperately asking for our help.


“Pope Francis made those statements to Congress well before this bill was introduced,” says Nezer, “and there is nothing about the SAFE Act that welcomes refugees or treats them with compassion. You can’t say you support refugees and support this bill.”

A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is an award-winning journalist.

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