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Refugee Advocates Hope For Policy Changes After U.S. Airstrikes In Syria

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In a statement last week justifying his change of heart on U.S. military intervention in Syria, President Trump spoke about being moved by images of civilians dying in that apparent chemical weapons attack.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.

CORNISH: Now, whether this new tone from the president will translate into more openness to Syrian refugees remains to be seen. Earlier we spoke to Linda Hartke. She's president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Her organization helps resettle refugees in the U.S.

LINDA HARTKE: We are hopeful that the president is seeing the human face of the Syrian refugee crisis, of a conflict that is forcing women, children families to flee for their lives. I think the president's comments reflect on how he's been touched personally in this situation, which is similar to how many Americans over decades actually have been touched by the experience of refugees and moved to take generous, compassionate action in response.

CORNISH: At the heart of Donald Trump's pushback against welcoming refugees into the U.S. is the fear that there could be bad actors that might sneak into the country through refugee channels. How do you safeguard against that? What has been the argument from your group and others?

HARTKE: Well, the responsibility to safeguard the homeland is an important responsibility of our federal government and, in particular, the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. And so over decades, in fact, the requirements for screening and vetting refugees have evolved. They've never been static. They've always adapted to meet whatever perceived threats the U.S. government may see to the homeland. But if our experience proves anything and experience of well over 75 years of resettling refugees, these new neighbors are real assets to this country and do not present a threat.

CORNISH: Do you see this moment as a time when you can make an appeal to the administration? Do you think that this is a moment when refugee advocacy groups should step up and say, please extend your concerns to the people who want to resettle here?

HARTKE: Absolutely. And we're doing that jointly with other national resettlement organizations and in fact, just a week ago, were in Washington with 80 Lutheran bishops, presidents of colleges and universities and women's organizations making that case to the administration and to policymakers on Capitol Hill.

CORNISH: Getting any response?

HARTKE: There's interest. You know, there continues to be some concern about vetting. I think the case, again, that we make is that's the Department of Homeland Security's responsibility, and that's work that they should be going about every day. There's no need to pause the U.S. refugee program for that kind of review to be undertaken. So I think we heard, generally speaking, support for the U.S. refugee program and understanding that this is an important legacy that needs to be extended far into the future that represents who we are as Americans at our best.

CORNISH: Linda Hartke - she joined us via Skype from Baltimore. She's president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARTKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.