refugee rift

Partisan clash emerges over potential U.S. refugee program for Gazans

65 Democrats urged the administration on Thursday to admit refugees from Gaza, while Republicans have stridently opposed the idea

Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

Palestinians are seen in Deir Al Balah, Gaza on June 20, 2024.

A partisan clash is emerging on Capitol Hill over the possibility of the U.S. accepting individuals fleeing Gaza into the United States as refugees, with some Democrats pushing for such a program as Republicans seek paths to block it.

On Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), joined by Reps. Greg Casar (D-TX), Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and 65 other Democratic lawmakers, urged the administration to designate Palestinians fleeing Gaza who are family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents as priority refugees for admission into the U.S.

Republicans, meanwhile, are stridently opposing the idea and are advancing legislation to block potential evacuation efforts. 

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) — who organized a letter with a group of 35 Republican senators last month opposing a possible refugee plan — led an amendment, included in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act last week, to block the use of Department of Defense assets to evacuate refugees from Gaza or the West Bank, Jewish Insider has learned.

House Republicans passed an amendment to the 2025 NDAA last week that would bar the U.S. from using military aircraft to fly Palestinians from Gaza to the U.S. 

Ernst’s May letter, co-signed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-WY) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-MT), came in response to reporting that the administration was discussing a potential refugee program.

The Republicans described the idea as a “national security risk,” highlighting widespread support in Gaza for Hamas, and concerns that the administration cannot “adequately vet this high-risk population for terrorist ties and sympathies before admitting them into the United States.”

They also warned that a refugee program might cause a rush to the Egypt-Gaza border and further destabilize Gaza. They argued that the administration’s efforts should be redirected toward rescuing U.S. hostages.

In a response letter obtained by JI, the State Department did not directly address the questions posed by Ernst and the other GOP senators or a potential Gaza refugee program.

A State Department official instead said that the U.S. has helped 1,800 U.S. citizens, permanent residents and family members leave Gaza, and that, “[a]ny individuals from Gaza who have traveled or would travel to the United States are thoroughly vetted, as the safety and security of the American people is our top priority.”

The official also said that the U.S. opposes the “forced relocation” of Palestinians from either Gaza or the West Bank, or any other measures to alter the territory of Gaza.

“The Biden administration is blowing off my work to prevent an October 7th-related attack on our own shores, which shows just how seriously this president takes our security,” Ernst said in a statement to JI. “Make no mistake, I have seen failures in the vetting process before, and I certainly don’t want to see them repeated. When Gaza’s own neighbors cannot properly vet friend or foe, there is no way our State Department can make those assessments, and they fail to provide concrete information otherwise.”

In their letter on Thursday, the House and Senate Democrats supporting a refugee program said that lawmakers have “received distressing requests for assistance from constituents desperately seeking to reunite with their loved ones” and that, without a path to seek entry into the U.S., “countless families with strong ties to our nation remain stranded in life-threatening conditions.”

They said that the proposed refugee program includes “the most rigorous vetting of any traveler coming to the U.S.,” and has been a “valuable tool” for deescalation and stability in conflict zones.

Senate co-signatories of the Democratic letter included Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Peter Welch (D-VT).

More moderate and vulnerable Senate Democrats were largely unenthusiastic and noncommittal about the idea of allowing in individuals fleeing Gaza when the proposal first emerged in early May, according to Politico.

The U.S. has historically accepted few Palestinians through refugee resettlement programs.

No serious plans for a refugee resettlement effort have been announced by the administration since the report nearly two months ago that such a program was under discussion. 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on May 1, when asked about the report, that the White House is “constantly evaluating policy proposals to further support Palestinians who are family members of American citizens and may want to come to the United States.” 

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