The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would make it much more difficult for Iraqi and Syrian refugees to enter the country. Gov. Chris Christie earlier this week said he wouldn’t admit Syrian refugees, even children under age 5. Humanitarian and civil rights groups are decrying efforts to keep refugees out.
According to data from the Refugee Processing Center of the U.S. Department of State, New Jersey took in a total of 2,384 refugees between January 1, 2010 and October 31 of this year. Less than 10 percent, or a total of 229, came from the three countries currently recognized by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism — Syria, Iran and Sudan. Another 518 were from Iraq. Iraq and Syria are the strongholds of ISIS, a known terrorist organization.
ISIS claimed responsibility for last Friday’s terrorist attack that killed 129 people in Paris. French authorities said that one of the terrorists may have posed as a Syrian migrant to enter Europe, which has brought new prominence to the controversial refugee issue. President Barack Obama has committed the United States to accepting 10,000 refugees from Syria. According to the humanitarian organization World Vision, about 4 million Syrians have fled the country due to the ongoing civil war and violence.
Christie made headlines when, on Monday, he told a conservative radio talk show host that he would bar all Syrian refugees, even orphaned children, from the United States. The next day, he wrote a letter to Obama saying that New Jersey would not accept any refugees from Syria. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union said Christie and other governors do not have the authority to reject refugees.
“Resettlement of refugees is a matter handled by the U.S. State Department … States don’t have veto power in this area, and it would violate the Constitution for a governor to bar an entire group of refugees based on nationality,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the NJ ACLU. “We’re deeply disappointed that Gov. Christie would turn his back on refugees who are trying to escape exactly what he fears: terrorism. This kind of fear-mongering blames refugees for the very terror they are fleeing, and it erodes our civil rights and civil liberties.”
He added that the United States has a “painstakingly rigorous” process for screening refugees.
On Thursday, the House voted overwhelmingly for HR 4038, the American SAFE Act of 2015, which would prevent any refugees from Syria or Iraq from entering the United States until cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence. The measure passed with bipartisan support. All New Jersey Republicans voted for it, as did Democrat Donald Norcross of the 1st District. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of the 12th District did not vote. The state’s other four Democratic representatives voted against the measure, which Obama has vowed to veto.
“Refugees are subject to the highest level of scrutiny and background checks of any traveler to the United States,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) who voted against the measure. “As an inclusive nation it is our moral responsibility to help the most vulnerable Syrians fleeing ISIS’s persecution. We can maintain our security and remain a safe harbor … Even following the violence that has befallen their country, France is continuing to accept refugees. We should not be turning away victims of Syrian civil war at our gates.”
Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3rd) and a supporter of the effort, said the nation must make sure a person will not be a threat before allowing him to enter the United States.
“Until we can say with certainty that the individuals trying to enter our nation are refugees and not terrorists, we must freeze any incoming applications from Syria and Iraq,” MacArthur said. “The safety and security of New Jersey families must come first.”
Data on where exactly they settled, at least temporarily, in New Jersey is not readily available, although the Resettlement and Placement Plan Summary for the last fiscal year, which ended September 30, shows that four New Jersey cities had received approval for refugee placement, a maximum of six in East Orange, 100 apiece in Camden and Jersey City, and 300 in Elizabeth.
The U.S. Census Bureau does have estimates of how many people born outside of the United States hail from various regions and countries and it also estimates the numbers of residents who reported ancestry from about 100 different countries.
According to the 2014 American Community Survey, about 22 percent of New Jersey’s 8.9 million residents were foreign-born. More than half of those nearly 2 million people had become naturalized citizens.
The overwhelming majority of foreign-born settling in New Jersey are not refugees. Many come on tourist visas or HB-1s. As noted, the tiny number of refugees who are sheltering in New Jersey are scrupulously vetted.
The largest share of New Jersey’s foreign-born, nearly 47 percent, hail from Latin America and South America, according to ACS data averaged over the years 2009 through 2013. Nearly 6,000 residents had been born in Iran, about 5,200 in Syria and 738 in Sudan.