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Story highlights

The House passed a bill to pause program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into United States

Paul Ryan: There are many people who would like to take advantage of our compassion

Editor’s Note: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

The terrorist attacks in Paris showed the world just how vulnerable a free society can be. They’re also a reminder that this administration’s attempt to contain the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has failed. That is why the House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would pause the Syrian refugee program until we can be certain no one coming here is a threat to our country.

Right now, thousands of families continue to pour out of Iraq and Syria to avoid civil war and the horrors of ISIS. Innocent men, women and children of all faiths and backgrounds are seeking asylum in Western countries, including the United States. And America has a long history of helping people in need.

The sad truth, though, is that there are many people who would like to take advantage of our compassion. Terrorists have made it clear that they intend to infiltrate this refugee population to reach the West and carry out other attacks. Most refugees pose absolutely no threat to us, but we simply don’t have a sufficient process for figuring out who each person is and verifying his or her background.

Paul Ryan
PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Paul Ryan

So the federal government must balance our compassion and our safety. Here’s the situation: Every year, the administration sets the maximum number of refugees the program will accept from each region of the world. And this year, the Obama administration announced we would accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria.

After a refugee applies, the Department of Homeland Security determines whether he or she is admissible. The State Department says “refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.”

That may be true, but here’s the problem: We just don’t have all that much information to check about Syrian refugees. Many high-ranking administration officials have said as much.

Testifying before Congress last month, FBI Director James Comey put it most starkly: “If someone has not made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interests reflected in our databases, we can query our databases until the cows come home but nothing will show up because we have no record of that person.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, meanwhile, has said: “It is true that we are not going to know a whole lot about the Syrians that come forth in this process. … That is definitely a challenge. … We know that organizations like ISIL might like to exploit this program.”

This is a moment, then, when it’s better to be safe than sorry. We think the prudent, responsible thing is to take a pause on this particular aspect of this refugee program until we have a more reliable process.

That’s why on Thursday the House passed the American SAFE Act in a bipartisan, veto-proof majority vote. It requires a higher level of verification for a refugee from Syria or Iraq to be allowed into the country.

For starters, the FBI director would have to certify that the applicant has received a background check thorough enough to determine whether he or she is a threat. In addition, the DHS secretary – with unanimous agreement from the FBI director and the director of national intelligence – must certify to Congress that the applicant is not a threat to the United States.

Because our information on Syrian refugees is very limited, the legislation would effectively put a pause on the program. The FBI will have to put a hold on accepting Syrian refugees until it has revamped the security-check process to meet the new requirements.

The bill imposes no religious test. It simply insists on greater security.

This is a compassionate country. But we can be compassionate and safe at the same time. If the intelligence and law enforcement community cannot certify a person presents no threat, then they should not be allowed in. That is simply common sense.

And it’s just a first step. We know that terrorists are also using other avenues, such as the visa waiver program, to travel to Western nations, and these must be examined as well.

More importantly, we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture here: The refugee crisis is a consequence of the President’s failed policy in the Middle East. It is a symptom of the disease. The ultimate solution is a plan to defeat ISIS, but until we are willing to truly confront this terrorist threat wherever it is, we cannot be truly safe.

The threat is serious, and it will not go away anytime soon. But the Senate can take a few straightforward steps toward a safer America by passing the American SAFE Act and sending it to the president’s desk.

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