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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cruz Attacks Rubio on Refugees

Sen. Ted Cruz falsely claims the 2013 immigration bill Sen. Marco Rubio co-sponsored “would have dramatically expanded President Obama’s authority to admit Syrian refugees with no background checks whatsoever,” making it “easier to bring Syrian Muslim refugees” to the U.S.

The bill, S. 744, would have made it easier for members of certain groups designated by the president to qualify as refugees, but they would still be subject to the required screening process of refugees before they could come to the U.S.

We first heard Cruz make this claim during an interview with Megyn Kelly of Fox News on Nov. 24. Cruz was defending himself against claims made in a TV ad from a super PAC supporting Rubio, a fellow candidate for the GOP nomination for president.

Cruz said that Rubio’s supporters were attacking him because they were worried about Rubio having supported the Senate immigration bill that would have paved the way for Syrian Muslims to come to the U.S.

Cruz, Nov. 24: This PAC ad by Rubio supporter[s] where they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, less than what it really is Megyn. It’s a sign of desperation. They want to try to change the topic because I think Marco’s campaign is determined that his longtime support of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama’s amnesty plans, particularly making it easier to bring Syrian Muslim refugees into this country that now they’re worried about it politically so they want to change it with a false attack ad.

The Texas senator brought it up again in a Dec. 10 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” when Cruz said “the Rubio-Schumer amnesty bill would have dramatically expanded President Obama’s authority to admit Syrian refugees with no background checks whatsoever.”

To support his claim that the bill would have made it easier for the president to admit Syrian refugees, Cruz’s campaign pointed to a commentary piece written by Conservative Review Senior Editor Daniel Horowitz.

Horowitz wrote that the bill, which was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and passed the Senate on June 27, 2013, “would have created endless avenues for this president to bring in an unlimited numbers of Islamic immigrants from the most volatile corners of the world.” He highlighted three sections of the legislation that he saw as problematic:

Horowitz, Nov. 15: One of the more obscure yet destructive provisions of the Gang of 8 bill I wrote about in 2013 was section 3405 (page 693), which created an entire new pipeline for refugees. This bill would have concocted an unconditional right to immediate legal permanent resident status for any person in the world who declares himself “stateless.” Had the bill passed in 2013, it would have given the Obama administration power to define who is considered stateless. Most of those likely to be designated as stateless are from Islamic hell holes and would include the Syrians, Somalis, Palestinians, and the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.

In addition, section 3403 would have granted Obama broad authority to create entire classes of refugees by categorically declaring them eligible based on humanitarian grounds.  Under existing law, to the extent it is adhered to, each application must be scrutinized on a case-by-case basis and the prospective refugee must demonstrate a credible fear of persecution on an individual level.

Section 3401 of the bill also dramatically weakened the precautions against fraudulent asylum petitions by, among other things, eliminating the time constraints on filing those applications.

But experts on refugee resettlement we consulted said that Horiwitz was off base.

“Absurd,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S., referring to what Horowitz wrote about the provision on stateless persons.

Section 3405 of the bill “allows individuals in the United States, with their spouses and children, to apply for conditional lawful status if they are stateless; after one year they may apply for lawful permanent residence; subject to numerical limits of the EB4 [employment based] green card,” according to a National Conference of State Legislatures analysis of the legislation.

The bill defines a stateless person as an “individual who is not considered a national under the operation of the laws of any country.”

“The statelessness provision applies entirely to domestic law, to stateless people who are already here. Or who get here in the future,” Hetfield wrote in an email to FactCheck.org. “And it would not allow people to simply self declare themselves as stateless. They have to prove it. It is not for any person ‘in the world.’ It must be a stateless person who is in the United States.”

Per the bill, either the U.S. attorney general or the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security could provide “conditional lawful status” to someone applying for relief as a stateless person who “has not lost his or her nationality as a result of his or her voluntary action or knowing inaction after arrival in the United States.”

Section 3403 of the bill also wouldn’t have made it particularly easy for Syrians to come to the U.S., the experts said.

“The short answer is no, it would not have made it easier for Syrian Muslims to enter the United States,” said Joanne Kelsey, assistant director for advocacy with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another domestic resettlement agency.

Under Section 3403, the president would be authorized to declare certain groups with common characteristics as refugees for special humanitarian purposes. In order to qualify for refugee status, individuals would only have to prove that they are a member of the refugee group designated by the president.

That differs from current law, which says that individuals applying to come to the U.S. as refugees must demonstrate that they can’t or won’t return to their home country because of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

That section of the bill is similar to the Lautenberg Amendment, named for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, which, according to the Congressional Research Service, “allows certain former Soviet and Indochinese nationals to qualify for refugee status based on their membership in a protected category with a credible fear of persecution.”

But even those who would qualify as a member of a refugee group designated by the president would not automatically be resettled into the U.S.

“Even if they somehow were found to fit the criteria as laid out (including having a specific vulnerability, justified in the national interest, etc.) and be designated as a group, they would still need to go through all of the same security vetting as other refugees,” Kelsey wrote in an email to FactCheck.org.

“What it may allow is for them to get into the line for consideration more easily since what they would need to establish is membership in this designated group which is presumed to have faced persecution rather than proving the persecution itself,” she added.

Hetfield agreed with that.

“In cases where it is obvious — or should be obvious — that members of designated refugee groups are subject to persecution, the law would allow the president to expedite processing by not requiring that each individual belonging to that group has a well founded fear of persecution,” he wrote.

“However, the provision does NOT waive or ease any of the security or other admissibility requirements. So, in fact, it would allow the Department of Homeland Security to focus on security concerns, not whether or not the applicant has a well founded fear of persecution. It makes the process faster and more efficient for designated groups, but not less secure.”

That’s why Cruz is also wrong when he says, as he did Dec. 10 on MSNBC, that “the Rubio-Schumer amnesty bill would have dramatically expanded President Obama’s authority to admit Syrian refugees with no background checks whatsoever.”

The process for admitting a refugee to the U.S. is lengthy, and includes background checks.

First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or sometimes a U.S. embassy, refers a refugee for resettlement in the U.S. After that, there’s an initial multi-step security clearance that is followed by an in-person interview abroad with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has to approve the application. That’s followed by a medical screening and a match with one of the voluntary agencies in the U.S. that sponsors refugees. And then there’s another security clearance to complete the process.

According to the State Department, on average, the process, from the UNHCR referral to finally being admitted into the U.S., takes 18 to 24 months.

For fiscal year 2016, President Obama has authorized his administration to admit 85,000 total refugees, including at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.

As for Section 3401 of the immigration bill, it would eliminate the one-year filing deadline for those applying for asylum in the U.S., and give a two-year window for some to apply for asylum if they had previously been denied based on missing the one-year deadline.

But, again, that would apply to people already in the U.S., so it’s not making it “easier to bring” anyone into the country.