Vulnerable California Democrats Play Defense on Syrian Refugee Issue

A migrant waited with his sick child to see a doctor at a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos that has received thousands of refugees from the war in Syria.

Political aftershocks from the terror attacks in Paris are starting to be felt here in California. You can see it from the governor and from nervous Democrats in vulnerable congressional districts. Like Rep. Ami Bera.

Thursday, Bera joined nearly 50 House Democrats in supporting a Republican bill, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, calling for tougher screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

The bill passed 289-137, but President Obama is threatening to veto it if it comes to his desk. But Bera, who represents a district east of Sacramento and is the only Indian-American in Congress, is erring on the side of safety.

“It is critical that our first priority is to keep America safe -- that is why I voted today for a bill to ensure that all Syrian refugees are thoroughly vetted,” Bera said in a statement.

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“However, we can’t let the terrorists win and influence who we are as Americans," the statement said. "Our country has always been a place for those fleeing violence or oppression and we must stay true to those values. This additional screening step will ensure that we know those coming into the country are not a security threat.”

It’s possible that Bera hears footsteps. He got a new Republican opponent this week, Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones. Surrounded by law enforcement officials at his campaign kickoff, Jones wasted no time attacking President Obama's plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States next year.

“We now know that terrorists, including some that were responsible for the attacks in Paris Friday, are imbedding themselves with refugee immigrants into Western Europe and beyond,” Jones said.

This week’s overwhelming House vote in favor of stricter screening of refugees comes as polls show a majority of Americans are afraid to allow Syrian immigrants into the country. Political consultant Jason Roe says the Paris attacks on restaurants and cafes -- not just tourist attractions -- leaves many feeling scared.

“I don't think that there is an emotion out there that's more powerful in politics than fear,” Roe said.

He's working for Denise Gitsham, a Republican hoping to knock off another vulnerable Democrat, San Diego congressman Scott Peters. Like Rep. Bera, Peters voted with Republicans Thursday in support of the SAFE Act.

“The administration has not made the case to me that today’s bill will shut down or unduly delay our existing process,” Peters said in a statement. “It is not too burdensome for federal agencies to certify that admitted refugees will not endanger our communities.”

It’s worth noting that the San Diego and Sacramento areas have the largest concentration of Syrian refugees in California.

Roe says that in the wake of the Paris attacks, voters will be looking for candidates they can trust to keep them safe.

“They want to be reassured that their representative is going to put their safety and security first, not political correctness, or maybe even good policy," he said.

But will that also be true in California, where voters increasingly see immigrants as a net-plus for the state?

Dan Schnur, with the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says Republicans should worry about losing the upper hand they currently have on defense issues by playing politics with the issue.

“And (Republicans) could end up forfeiting that very quickly if they overplay their hand and end up coming across as nativist or anti-immigrant as opposed to security-minded,” Schnur said.

In any case, Democratic consultant Katie Merrill says it's too soon to say that this issue will still be relevant in the 2016 election.

“What you see in the polls right now is a reflection of it being so soon after the attacks in Paris,” Merrill said. “I think as the months wear on, this will be less of an issue and less of a hot-button issue.”

Nonetheless, Bera and Peters were joined by six other Democrats from California, including Raul Ruiz (Palm Desert), Jim Costa (Fresno), Pete Aguilar (Redlands), Julia Brownley (Westlake Village) and John Garamendi (Walnut Grove). Of the eight, only Janice Hahn (Los Angeles) is in a seat considered safely Democratic, and she's not running for re-election.

Gov. Jerry Brown said this week that California can still be a place of asylum -- with a caveat.

“I intend to work closely with the president so that he can both uphold America’s traditional role as a place of asylum, but also ensure that anyone seeking refuge in America is fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way,” Brown said in a statement. “You can be sure that we will do everything in our power to protect the people of our state.”

As if to underscore that point, the governor joined a call with White House officials yesterday to learn more about the Obama administration’s plans to screen future refugees before they come to California.