© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Maine's Delegation Divided Over House Immigration Bill

WASHINGTON — Members of Maine's Congressional Delegation are divided over a House-passed bill that would require new FBI background checks and sign offs from three high-ranking federal officials before any Iraqi or Syrian refugee could come to the United States.

The two House members split on the measure and the senators say it fails to address the most pressing security issue.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin says he voted for what's called the Safe Act because it strengthens the immigration review process for those seeking to immigrate to the U.S. from two countries that have been major sources of terrorists.

"It says before any refugee from Syria or Iraq enters our country, the directors of Homeland Security and the FBI and the head of our national intelligence agency must sign off personally that they represent no threat to our country."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree says she voted against the legislation because there are already stringent screening processes in place. And Pingree says the measure does nothing that would actually improve the existing process, such as require additional background checks. And she says it doesn't provide any funding to pay for more in-depth screening.

"I didn't actually feel that this bill advanced the cause of making us safer," she says. "It didn't add new resources, it basically in a sense would have shut down the refugee process completely, which I just didn't think was the right thing to do at this point in time."

Pingree says there are far more serious vulnerabilities in the process that allow foreigners into the U.S. and that those need to be addressed.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, says the lack of security checks on tourist visas are a far more serious problem than the threat posed by refugees.

"Frankly that's a greater vulnerability than the issue of the Syrian refugees, who have to go through an 18-month to two-year vetting process — very few get through it," he says. "Most of them are women and children and elderly people. So let's focus our attention where the greatest threat is."

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins says the House bill needs refining. She outlined her vision for additional security checks on those coming into the United States in a speech earlier this week opposing an amendment by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. She says the federal government is currently not using all of its tools to screen those entering the country as a refugee or as a tourist.

"Are we matching them up against our no fly list, our TIDE database, which is the larger terrorist watch list?" she says. "The answer was no and that needs to change."

Collins says she is worried about the most vulnerable refugees: the children and those escaping religious persecution. She believes most Americans would welcome them to this country if they had more confidence in the screening system used to keep out terrorists.

It's far from certain that the Senate will take up the House-passed measure, and that worries Poliquin. He says the House bill is a good start.

"The critics of this bill that say it doesn't go far enough," he says. "In my opinion that is no reason not to take this first step. So we need to protect the home front — this is about national security, not politics."

Congress is in recess until after the Thanksgiving holiday, and when it returns it will have only have two weeks to pass the spending bills needed to keep the federal government operating without any disruptions.