Let persecuted in, Cotton says

Bill allows for 50,000 Syrians

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks in front of the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, May 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

WASHINGTON -- On the same day that the U.S. government accused the Islamic State of genocide, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced legislation to allow up to 50,000 members of Syrian religious minorities to resettle in the United States between now and Sept. 30, 2020.

The Republican from Dardanelle on Thursday filed his bill, known as The Religious Persecution Relief Act.

Persecuted Christians would qualify, but so would members of other embattled faith groups, including Yazidis and Mandeans, who face extermination in lands ruled by jihadists.

The number admitted would be capped at 10,000 each federal fiscal year, starting with fiscal 2016.

During a 15-minute speech on the Senate floor, Cotton described the barbarism encountered by religious minorities in the areas controlled by the Islamic State: women forced into sexual slavery; men beheaded and crucified.

"Syrians of all confessions are being victimized by this savage war and are facing unimaginable suffering, but only Christians and other minorities are the deliberate targets of systematic persecution and genocide. Their ancient communities are at risk of extermination. Their ancestral homes and religious sites are being erased from the Middle Eastern map," he said. "Christians and other minorities should not be shut out from the small number of refugees who find shelter in the United States. We ought to help ensure that these faith communities survive."

Only 41 of the 1,790 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. last year were members of religious minorities, including 29 Christians, Cotton said. While religious minorities made up 13 percent of prewar Syria, they accounted for only 2.3 percent of the refugees allowed to enter America, he added.

The danger that religious minorities face isn't limited to Islamic State-controlled territory, he said.

Persecution is so severe that many Christians are afraid to live in United Nations refugee camps or to submit the paperwork seeking asylum to international aid workers, Cotton said.

Rather than going through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- as typically happens now -- Cotton's legislation would allow asylum seekers to apply directly to the United States Refugee Admissions Program.

Asked how his bill would affect other refugees, Cotton said it would raise the maximum number of overall refugees rather than reallocating the existing spots.

"This would not take potential slots away from any other kind of refugee," he said Thursday afternoon.

In an interview, Council on American-Islamic Relations national spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said it's important that the legislation increases the number of refugees rather than shifting the opportunities from one group to another.

The council, based in Washington, D.C., describes itself as the "largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization."

"If it assists those in need and who are targeted because of their minority status, I see no problem with it as long as it's not used to deny assistance to other people in need," he said.

Cotton's proposal comes four months after he and other Republicans tried to slow the influx of Syrian refugees, saying security and screening measures were lacking.

Asked about those concerns, Cotton said, "Under this track, any Christian or other religious minority would still have to undergo the same security screening that anyone else would under the traditional refugee process."

"We're not under attack by radical Christian groups. We're not under attack by radical Yazidi groups. We're under attack by radical Muslims. And to the extent that a persecuted Christian shows up at a U.S. facility and demonstrates that he's both a Christian and that he's fled his lands, I think that we can have more confidence that that person's not going to be an ISIS terrorist if they come to our country."

Similar refugee status has been given to other persecuted religious groups over the years, including victims of religious persecution in the Soviet Union and Iran, he said.

Cotton's proposal is "very important," according to Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and a longtime international human rights attorney.

The U.N. camps where refugee applications typically originate have few Christians "because it's too dangerous for them. The persecution that they suffered in Iraq and Syria follows them into the camps so they cannot seek shelter there," said Shea, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"There is a course correction needed, particularly since now they are officially acknowledged as victims of ... an ongoing genocide," she said.

A Section on 03/18/2016