South Florida Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-FL) joined 50 of her Congressional colleagues to issue a statement on April 24th, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
“Over 100 years ago, my grandparents fled the Ottoman Empire to escape the #ArmenianGenocide”, she posted on Twitter.
Shalala was the only Florida Representative to issue a statement this year. She was also an outspoken supporter of the Armenian Genocide recognition resolution and spoke on the floor of the House during the debate when it passed on October 29, 2019 for the first time in U.S. history.
Armenians around the world commemorate the World War I-era mass killings of 1.5 million of their kin every year on April 24th, when in 1915 the Ottoman Turkish government rounded up and murdered over 200 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople (Istanbul) marking the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS) Appropriations Bill, the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) reported. In total, the bill provides $47.4 billion in funding for SFOPS, which is $10 billion less than FY17. The bill maintains Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act and includes language for aid to nations hosting Syrian refugees.
The SFOPS Report highlighted the need for additional assistance to “vulnerable populations in Syria and in neighboring countries,” comprised of Syrian refugees, Christians, and other minorities affected by the Syrian civil war and persecuted by the Islamic State (ISIS). The Committee raised concerns regarding “the lengthy displacement of Syrians and the ongoing burden they face, as well as the continued strain Syrian refugees are placing on host communities.”
“We commend the House Appropriations Committee for emphasizing the importance of humanitarian aid for both refugees and the nations hosting them,” Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny said. “To date, Armenia has welcomed over 22,000 refugees from Syria who have escaped with their families. As conditions worsen in Syria, Armenia continues to serve as a sanctuary for persecuted Christians and other at-risk groups escaping genocide and violence in the Middle East. As the humanitarian crisis in Syria continues, we must ensure that relief aid reaches those in need, which includes Armenia as a host nation for refugee resettlement,” he added.
Referencing the designation of genocide committed against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq by Islamist extremists made by Secretary of State John Kerry on March 18, 2016, the bill allocates funds to “be made available for programs to protect vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities.” This includes programs authorized by H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017, which the Armenian Assembly strongly supported, and was unanimously adopted by the House of Representatives on June 6, 2017. The Committee recommends not less than $10 million to be made available for programs to protect vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities. In addition, the bill states that $10 million should also be made available for international religious freedom programs.
The House Report also incorporated a section on Genocide Victim Memorial Sites and Tribunals, where funds are appropriated “to establish and maintain memorial sites of genocide” in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia.
“The Armenian Assembly will continue to push for additional assistance. Despite reductions across the board, it is imperative that Armenia and Artsakh have the resources necessary to address the compelling humanitarian needs as a result of the current refugee crisis as well as Azerbaijan’s ongoing and deadly ceasefire violations,” Ardouny stated.
Although the President’s budget cut aid to Azerbaijan, it also sharply reduced proposed aid to Armenia. The President’s budget request for Armenia included $4 million in Economic Support and Development Fund, $1.5 million for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, and $700,000 for Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs. The House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats will hold a hearing tomorrow entitled “Examining the President’s FY 2018 Budget Proposal for Europe and Eurasia” for further discussion.
With action in the House Appropriations Committee completed, attention turns to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where a mark-up of its version of the bill is pending.
The Assembly submitted testimony earlier this year to the House Appropriations State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee highlighting key areas of concern, including the ongoing Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, the need for continued and robust funding as well as safeguarding of Christian minorities at risk in the Middle East, and support for a second U.S.-Armenia Millennium Challenge compact.
On March 17, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member and Armenian Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) provided testimony in support of aid to Armenia and Artsakh as the Administration first released the budget blueprint for FY18. They also signed a bipartisan letter, initiated by Rep. Pallone, on March 30 advocating “to advance U.S. interests by strengthening Armenia’s independence, promoting peace in Nagorno-Karabagh, and supporting Armenia as a regional safe haven for at-risk Middle East refugees” with Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Jackie Speier (D-CA) and 22 other Representatives.
Spearheaded by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), 27 Members of Congress sent a letter last month to House Appropriations SFOPS Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) expressing concern about the 67 percent reduction in foreign aid to Armenia.
“At a time of tremendous global uncertainty, the U.S. should continue to foster the progress of its allies, not retreat from its responsibilities as the world’s leading democracy. As the U.S. and Armenia commemorate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, we urge the committee to reject the harmful cuts to U.S. aid to Armenia proposed by the President’s FY18 budget,” the Representatives stated in the letter.
By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Managing Editor
Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to adopt H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, a bill that would pause the federal government’s current resettlement program for refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The bill requires the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to perform background checks and sign off that each refugee “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”
The current policy only requires the DHS to perform background checks and takes 18-24 months to complete. The additional security checks would prolong the current process. All refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. are first registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and those eligible are reported to DHS to begin the process.
The legislation comes on the heels of the November 13th terrorist attack in Paris, France that left 129 dead. At least one of the Paris attackers is known to have travelled from Syria to Europe through Greece, the route used by millions of migrants fleeing the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria and Iraq.
The House vote is a rebuke to President Obama, who threatened on Wednesday to veto the legislation. The additional security measures are “unnecessary and impractical,” the White House said. “Given the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, if the president were presented with H.R. 4038, he would veto the bill.”
47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans, giving House lawmakers a veto-proof majority they hope will force the President’s hand on the issue.
In Florida, 19 of the state’s 27 Representatives voted in favor of the tougher measures, with two Democrats joining Florida’s entire Republican delegation in support of the bill.
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, voted in favor of the SAFE Act. He released the following statement after the vote: “I am deeply disappointed how divisive this debate has become. Homeland security should never be partisan and our number one priority is to always keep the American people safe. With new security considerations following the tragic and cowardly attacks in Paris last week, we must ensure that we have the strongest safeguards to certify refugees are not a threat to homeland security. This bill ensures that our entire intelligence community is on the same page without turning our backs on those fleeing violence and terror. We must put aside partisan differences to develop a comprehensive strategy that combats the threat ISIS poses to people who love freedom everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Murphy’s opponent for U.S. Senate, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) voted against the bill. Murphy “chose fear over humanity when he voted against Syrian refugees,” Grayson posted on Twitter.
Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) is the other Florida Democrat to break ranks, stating “As the granddaughter of a Christian who came to America after fleeing religious violence, I do believe we have a role in helping peace-seeking refugees — but in light of new threats, we must strengthen our vetting process. We must be able to identify those who wish to do us harm, while continuing to offer a safe haven to those in need of refuge from war and persecution.”
Graham represents a swing district in northern Florida and narrowly won election in 2014. Her seat is expected to become safe-Republican after the Florida Supreme Court completes the redistricting process before the end of the year.
“As elected officials, we have the responsibility to do everything we can to protect our nation,” stated Armenian Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL). “The SAFE Act puts in place a robust, extensive vetting and monitoring process to identify individuals who pose a security threat. It fulfills our promise to the American people that we are working diligently to prevent terrorists from reaching our shores.”
ARMENIAN AMERICANS REACT
For Armenian Americans, the issue tugs at the heartstrings as images and stories of those fleeing the violence emerge. Following the World War I Armenian Genocide, Christian Armenian orphans and other survivors were accepted into Syrian society and over the last century developed into a critical part of Syria’s multi-cultural mosaic. Some 180,000 Armenian Christians used to call Aleppo home up until a few years ago when they were driven out by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“I fully support the resettlement of Syrian refugees, irrespective of their ethno-religious affiliation, in the U.S.,” stated Sarkis Balkhian, Advocacy Director for the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization, who is himself an Armenian American citizen from Aleppo. “During the 4.5 years of the Syrian conflict, the United States has resettled approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees out of a total of 4.3 million. That’s a comical number,” Balkhian said. “But yesterday’s vote confirmed that 289 Representatives are oblivious about the U.S. resettlement program and the vigorous vetting process already in place. What’s worse is that it appears they have succumbed to fear and are punishing the victims of ISIS rather than ISIS itself.”
Yet, Armenian Americans seem to be equally concerned about the potential influx of radical extremists who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life.
“I am wholeheartedly opposed to our government’s current plan to bring refugees from Syria and Iraq to the United States,” stated Ani Tramblian, an Armenian American from Annandale, Virginia. “I use the term bringing, because we are literally bringing them here, using American taxpayer dollars. Our President is putting U.S. citizens in harms way and exposing us to unnecessary risk. The House was right to pause the current process and add tougher security measures especially in light of terrorist attacks in Paris, and I hope our President takes our Congress seriously,” she said.
On Wednesday night, Florida Armenians launched an online poll, admittedly unscientific. At the time of this writing, the poll finds 51% of Armenian Americans in support of accepting 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees as currently planned. 35% of Armenian Americans oppose accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq, while 13% agree with the House measure and support a pause in the current resettlement program, according to the Florida Armenians poll.
The Florida Armenians poll on Syria refugees will close on Friday at midnight.