President Obama said Thursday that Syrian refugees are no more dangerous to the U.S. than tourists, and he accused Republican presidential candidates of stoking fears about the refugees and closing the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center to score political points.
Speaking to reporters at a summit in the Philippines, Mr. Obama said the “overwhelming numbers” of Syrians who are applying for entry to the U.S. “are children, women, families — themselves victims of terrorism.” He said they are already subject to rigorous vetting by U.S. security officials.
“The idea that somehow they pose a more significant threat than all the tourists who pour into the United States every single day just doesn’t jive with reality,” Mr. Obama said. “So my expectation is after the initial spasm of rhetoric, the people will settle down, take a look at the facts, and we’ll be able to proceed.”
A majority of governors are opposing Mr. Obama’s plan to accept about 10,000 refugees, in light of the Paris terrorist attacks last week. Congress is moving to delay the president’s plan; lawmakers also are fighting his goal of closing Guantanamo and bringing detainees to prisons in the U.S.
The White House is threatening to veto a Republican-drafted bill that would suspend the refugee program until security concerns are addressed.
The president said presidential candidates are pandering to Americans’ fears about a terrorist attack in the U.S.
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“In the aftermath of Paris, I think that there is just a very strong tendency for us to get worked up around issues that don’t actually make us safer but make for good political soundbites,” he said, “whether it’s refugees or Guantanamo, those are [a] handy answer, particularly for folks who aren’t interested in engaging in a more serious debate about how we invest in the long, hard slog of dealing with terrorism.”
Mr. Obama said the rhetoric around Guantanamo “alienates Muslim-Americans” in the same way that the anti-refugee rhetoric does. He said the detention center “has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like” the Islamic State.
“We can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation,” the president said. “We have reduced that population further, and I expect that early by next year we may even have fewer than a hundred people at Guantanamo.”
The administration refuted reports Wednesday that it is delaying its plan to shutter Guantanamo, but Mr. Obama said the White House is still working with Congress to reduce the detainee population.
“We are going to go through, meticulously, with Congress, what our options are, why we think this should be closed,” he said. “I guarantee you there will be strong resistance.”