U.S. Senate scrutinizes Canada's Syrian refugee program
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 3, 2016 10:55AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 3, 2016 5:18PM EST
WASHINGTON -- Canada's resettlement plan for Syrians came under scrutiny Wednesday in the U.S. Congress amid a hothouse election-year atmosphere -- one where American politics is split over the welcoming of Muslim refugees.
It became apparent just moments into a hearing of the Senate's Homeland Security committee that this conversation was as much between Americans as it was between countries.
In his opening remarks, the committee's top Republican, Ron Johnson, said of the Trudeau plan to bring in 25,000 refugees: "That's a pretty significant ramp-up. Will there be short-cuts taken?"
The top Democrat, Tom Carper, countered by quoting Pope Francis: "I think we should support our ally Canada in doing the right thing in the most secure manner possible," he said.
The context for this meeting was unfolding elsewhere.
Up the highway in Baltimore, Barack Obama visited a mosque for the first time in his presidency and warned against anti-Muslim bigotry. His Republican opponents have hammered him for planning to bring in 10,000 refugees -- some want zero; some want only non-Muslims; and Donald Trump wants a total freeze on Muslim travel to the U.S.
The Canadian government was invited to participate in the hearing but declined, citing the historical precedent of avoiding that partisan chamber.
A veteran Washington lobbyist called that a wise move.
Former Canadian diplomat Paul Frazer said he hasn't heard a single lawmaker raise Canada's refugee plan as a serious concern. He said the Canadian government should keep on eye on the discussion, communicate with U.S. counterparts on security and stay out of the political fray.
"This is a particularly partisan year. Canada has nothing to gain by jumping into the pool," Frazer said.
"This is not really about Canada... Senate and House hearings serve many purposes and often serve a variety of agendas. Hearings are often political theatre."
One senator used the hearing to promote a bill she's trying to pass.
At one point, two of the six senators present were border state representatives who've co-sponsored a bipartisan bill calling for more resources and customs agents in their states.
A second witness, David Harris, was employed at Canada's spy agency from 1988 to 1990 and has in subsequent decades been regularly quoted in U.S. media stories referring to the danger of terrorists from Canada.
Outside the hearings, he explained his broader goal: a massive reduction in immigration to Canada -- from the current 250,000 annually to several tens of thousands.
"We have imposed upon ourselves a remarkable burden where security is concerned," he said.
Immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann expressed doubt that refugee-screening safeguards -- a biometric exam, intelligence co-operation with the U.S., the prioritization of families, women and children and the fact refugees would require a visa to enter the U.S. -- could eliminate the threat entirely.
"Our (border) checkpoints are only effective with respect to people who choose to use them," he said. "Many successfully avoid our checkpoints."
Laura Dawson, of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute, was the only witness to defend Canadian policy, listing security projects where Canada has co-operated with the U.S.
"Canada is not a weak link in the fight against terrorism," she said.
Neither party's lawmakers were too harsh on Canada.
Carper, the Democrat, said later that a terrorist would have to be "stupid" to try using the international refugee process to first infiltrate Canada, then the U.S.
"They're not stupid," he said.