KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Obama vowed on Saturday to keep America’s borders open to the world’s refugees “as long as I’m president,” even as he met with child migrants and refugees here and his administration refused to yield in a long-distance feud with his critics over the issue.
Mr. Obama chatted with elementary-school-age children, all sharply dressed in navy-and-white uniforms, at a humanitarian center that serves young people who have fled violence in Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and elsewhere.
They were representative of the faces of all the world’s persecuted minorities, the president said, adding that such children must not be turned away by countries like the United States because of what he insisted was an unfounded fear of a terrorist threat from their presence.
“They were indistinguishable from any child in America,” Mr. Obama said after kneeling to look at their drawings and math homework. “And the notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave us to turn our sights away from their plight, is not representative of the best of who we are.”Photo
President Obama visited a center for child refugees on Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He said such children should not be barred from entering the United States over security fears. CreditJonathan Ernst/Reuters
A 10-day trip by the president to Turkey and Asia has been overshadowed by a relentless clash with governors, lawmakers and Republican presidential candidates about whether to block the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States.
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, House lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation Thursday to drastically tighten screening for refugeesseeking to enter the United States from Syria. Calls for restrictions on Syrian refugees have echoed across the political landscape, from Republican presidential hopefuls and governors to many lawmakers from the president’s own party.
The president and his aides have condemned what he called on Thursday a “spasm of rhetoric” among politicians. He accused Republicans in the United States of cowardice for seeking to block Syrian children and families who are fleeing the violent civil war in their country.
“Apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion,” Mr. Obama said on Wednesday, adding a moment later: “That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”
As Mr. Obama has participated in a series of economic summit meetings on this trip, White House officials have repeatedly sought to emphasize what they say is a comprehensive screening process for Syrian refugees that takes up to two years and includes interviews and biometric data to ensure that terror suspects do not enter the United States.
In the president’s weekly radio address, taped by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and released on Saturday morning, Mr. Biden insisted that refugees from Syria face “the most rigorous screening” of anybody entering the United States.
“First they are fingerprinted, then they undergo a thorough background check, then they are interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security,” Mr. Biden said. “And after that, the F.B.I., the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of State, they all have to sign off on access.”
Administration officials have also sought to change the subject, telling reporters during the president’s flight from the Philippines to Malaysia on Friday that the White House was open to discussions with lawmakers about tightening security for a separate program that reduces visa requirements for millions of people visiting the United States from certain countries.
But the White House efforts have done little to quell the anxiety back home. The House bill increasing security for the refugee program passed by a vote of 289 to 137, with nearly 50 Democrats supporting it. That is a margin that might allow lawmakers to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto if the bill also passes in the Senate.
At the Dignity for Children Foundation in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, Mr. Obama knelt to talk to several children as photographers and television cameras captured the broad smiles on their faces.
“What’s your favorite subject?” he asked, squatting beside a girl seated on a gray shag rug. “Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?”
The girl said she liked math and wanted to be an engineer when she grew up, prompting Mr. Obama to say, “You’re going to be an excellent engineer.”
Most of the children at the center were members of the Rohingya minority who have fled persecution, discrimination and ethnic violence in Myanmar, officials said. White House aides said the United Nations had documented more than 153,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, but they said the images of Mr. Obama in the center were designed to highlight the plight of refugees across the globe.
In his remarks, the president said he hoped the recent elections in Myanmar, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracywon in a landslide, would help ease the humanitarian crisis in that country. In the meantime, he said, “The refugees from Myanmar — again, mostly Rohingya, mostly Muslim — those young children up there, they’re deserving of the world’s protection and the world’s support.”
More broadly, he said, the United States should not turn its back on children from all over the world. He said America’s role as a global leader was defined by its willingness to help people who have been discriminated against, tortured or subjected to violence.
“That’s American leadership,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s when we’re the shining light on the hill. Not when we respond on the basis of fear.”
Mr. Obama is scheduled to return to the United States on Monday, when he is likely to face more debate about the refugee issue. He is also scheduled to meet on Tuesday with President François Hollande of France to discuss the terror attacks in Paris.
Before leaving Asia, Mr. Obama spent some time on Saturday telling business leaders that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated by 12 nations, including the United States, will improve the economy and security of Southeast Asia.
Speaking to a business group before heading to the humanitarian center, Mr. Obama said he remained confident that Congress would approve the deal. And he said that nations in Asia should quickly do the same.
“T.P.P. is more than just a trade pact; it also has important strategic and geopolitical benefits,” he said. “T.P.P. is a long-term investment in our shared security and in universal human rights.”
“With T.P.P., we’re not only writing the rules for trade in the Asia Pacific, we also have an historic opportunity to shape the future of the global economy,” he said, adding: “It says that America’s foreign policy rebalance to the Asia Pacific will continue on every front.”