Home

In the House, Personal Debates on Refugees

Amash has family ties to the Middle East. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House debate on refugees and national security this week took a turn for the personal and for good reason: Several members are refugees or the children of refugees, have family ties to the Middle East or were imprisoned in U.S. internment camps on the basis of their ethnicity.  

After the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, House Republicans drafted legislation requiring the FBI to certify background checks for U.S.-bound Syrian and Iraqi refugees and U.S. national security agencies to vouch that they are not security threats. The final vote in the House on Thursday was 289-137, a veto-proof margin. In the run-up to that vote, elected officials beyond the Beltway called for Syrian refugees to be turned away from their borders. One, Mayor David A. Bowers of Roanoke, Va., a Democrat, even invoked the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to justify taking a pass on resettling refugees.  

"I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” he said in a statement, “and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”  

Ryan: No 'Religious Test' for Syrian Refugees 

One Rhode Island state senator, Republican Elaine Morgan, advocated rounding up Syrian refugees into camps. "If we need to take these people in we should set up refugee camp to keep them segregated from our populous," she wrote in an email on Tuesday, according to Rhode Island Public Radio .  

Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., was one of the 120,000 interned during the war, and he reacted quickly to those sentiments.  

“We simply cannot let the extremist perpetrators of these hateful acts of violence drive us into such a misguided action. ... The Japanese and Japanese Americans interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was an outrage, as was turning away Jews at our borders who were fleeing German persecution. We cannot allow this to happen again and reverse the progress we have made in the last several decades," Honda said in a statement released Wednesday. He voted against the House bill.  

Honda, who was born in 1941, isn't the only member of Congress interned in the Japanese-American camps. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., was born in 1944 in the Poston, Ariz., camp. Her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., was born in 1941 and was also interned. She voted against the bill.  

The House's Cuban-American contingent is a diverse lot whose families immigrated to the United States after Fidel Castro's forces toppled Fulgencio Batista's government on Jan. 1, 1959.  

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was born on July 15, 1952, in Havana, Cuba, and was the first Cuban-American (and Hispanic woman) elected to Congress in August 1989. She came to the United States at the age of eight.  

Her home-state colleague, Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, was born on Sept. 25, 1961, in Fort Lauderdale, only two years after his family, whom Castro describes as mortal enemies, fled the island country.  

The third Republican Cuban-American in the Sunshine State, Carlos Curbelo, was born on March 1, 1980, in Miami, well after the revolution. But his parents fled Cuba in the 1960s.  

All three voted for the House bill on Thursday. Ros-Lehtinen, a former chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Diaz-Balart did not issue statements after the vote.  

Curbelo did, saying, "The refugees currently fleeing the Middle East  seek the same freedoms that we as Americans are blessed to enjoy. I want to ensure our country remains a place of refuge and hope for oppressed people from all over the world, while granting our law enforcement officials the tools they need to properly screen each refugee and keep Americans safe."  

A fourth Cuban-American House member, Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., voted against the bill. Born Jan. 26, 1951, in Bejucal, Cuba, he and his family immigrated to New York in 1962. In his weekly "Washington Review" roundup, he didn't mention the legislation. He did note that he attended Ros-Lehtinen's Foreign Affairs chairwoman portrait unveiling on Wednesday.  

Perhaps no member has as direct a link to the issue as Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., the tea-party favorite born in Grand Rapids and an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Amash's father is a former refugee who emigrated from Palestine to the United States as a teen and founded a tool company. His mother came from Syria.  

Amash, who voted for the bill, did not return a request for comment about his vote. He has not released a statement about the vote, nor explained it on his Facebook page, as is his habit.  

Although he did not tweet directly about the vote, he did state on Twitter on Thursday "When politicians urge you to give up your rights for a false sense of safety, I'll remind you that liberty is what makes life worthwhile."

In a week dominated by security concerns and discussions about the character of the country, much of the debate, at least from these members, came from seemingly deep personal places.