Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., addresses the Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Fla. last week. (Photo: John Raoux/AP)
At 3:21 p.m. on Monday, Rand Paul’s office announced that the U.S. senator would introduce a bill to “suspend visa issuance for countries with a high risk of terrorism.”
Thirty-three minutes later, at 3:54, Paul’s presidential campaign blasted out an email to supporters asking recipients to visit his website and enter their contact information as part of signing a petition to back the bill.
In the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last week, the line between legislating and campaigning has become as thin as the practical difference between the emails’ subject lines. “Sen. Rand Paul Introduces Legislation to Prevent Terrorists From Entering the U.S. as Refugees,” declared the Kentucky Republican’s Senate office. “No refugees,” declaimed his campaign missive before seeking signatures — and essential fundraising data like email addresses — “to express your support for my opposition to the dangerous refugees being allowed into our country.”
Paul was far from the only 2016 office-seeker to rush to propose legislation curbing the number of Syrian refugees allowed into America in the wake of the terrorist attacks Friday in Paris, which were reportedly coordinated in Syria, Belgium and France.
By Tuesday afternoon, the race was on to draft fresh laws to restrict the inflow of Syrian refugees in advance of congressional consideration of the measures, which House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters could come as soon as this week.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who also is competing for the Republican presidential nomination, has said repeatedly that his office is working on legislation that would allow only Christians to be admitted as refugees from Syria. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who is in the middle of a runoff to become that state’s governor and faces voters again next week, also has proposed a U.S. Senate bill to curb refugees. On Tuesday morning, Vitter’s office said his bill would stop Syrian refugees from gaining asylum in America until proper “verification safeguards” are in place.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, addresses the Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Fla., last week. (Photo: John Raoux/AP)
Overall, nearly all the Republicans running for the presidential nomination called for a halt on the intake of Syrian refugees to the U.S., as 30 state governors — all but one Republican — called for an end to any plans for resettling Syrian refugees in their states. The Democrat, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, is currently running for Senate against incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte.
Another Cruz bill, this one to ban sanctuary cities — the practice by municipalities of taking a softer stance on undocumented immigrants — is scheduled for consideration in the Senate this week, giving Republicans who have consistently been opposed to immigration reform an opportunity to conflate overall immigration issues and the response to the Paris attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis. New Orleans, as Vitter noted in his statement announcing his Syrian refugee bill, is a so-called sanctuary city.
“As a sanctuary city, New Orleans already attracts illegal immigrants, and now with Obama’s directive to invite 10,000 unconfirmed Syrian refugees into our country, Louisiana is at even greater risk for potential terrorist threats,” Vitter said, seeking to yoke the two issues together. “That is absolutely unacceptable, and I will continue fighting to implement all necessary measures in order to protect Louisianians.”
Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Sen. David Vitter, R-La., speaks to reporters after his debate against Democratic candidate John Bel Edwards in Baton Rouge, La., on Monday. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)
Opposing immigrants is hardly a new playbook for the GOP, as it plays well with its base and Republican-leaning independents. And Vitter finds himself fighting for his political life, down to a Democrat in a red state where the current Republican governor, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, is deeply unpopular and mired in a nasty personal campaign.
In 2010, Vitter’s Senate reelection campaign ran a controversial but effective ad in the closing weeks of the election featuring actors smuggling themselves through a busted-open fence. Immigration reform activists denounced the ad as “racist.” He was facing personal attacks then too.
In 2014, Senate Republicans were able to retake the majority of the chamber, in no small part because of a massive ad campaign by the Republican National Committee in seven states the weekend before Election Day linking the Islamic State, Ebola and Guantanamo Bay. This was after weeks of similar efforts by outside groups.
Any legislation approved by Congress would need to gather enough votes to override a more-than-likely presidential veto, but — as with so many other controversial issues — GOP leaders will be hard-pressed to find Democrats to join them in bucking the president if it comes to that. Republicans also have said there’s no way to screen Syrian refugees, which the Obama administration vigorously denies.
And while it is the job of Congress to legislate on immigration, the legislature is still bound by the Constitution when it comes to singling out religions, which makes Cruz’s proposed idea almost certain not to become law, even if it had the support to pass.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., joined by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La., center, and Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., meets with reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday following a GOP strategy session. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
“Congress has plenary power to control immigration. Congress can restrict immigration from a particular country,” noted legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine. But “Discriminating based on religion” — as Cruz has proposed — “would be unconstitutional.”
Whether the Republican bills have any chance of becoming law (they more than likely do not), they are certain to increase public pressure on President Obama to side with Republicans on the refugee issue and to raise the stakes for Democrats who continue to support admitting Syrian refugees. Which, of course, is the political point.
Yahoo News national affairs correspondent Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.