KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Obama met with child refugees at a humanitarian center here Saturday as he sought to put a human face on his bitter fight with Republicans over the administration’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Obama knelt on the floor of the Dignity for Children Foundation and chatted with grade-school-age children as they worked on handicrafts. Speaking to reporters, the president said the youngsters were “indistinguishable from any child in America.”
“The notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave them to turn our sights away from their plight, is not representative of the best of who we are,” Obama said.
The president’s visit to the center in Kuala Lumpur, where he is attending a pair of regional summits, was planned well in advance of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali over the past week. But it took on heightened political importance amid fierce debate between Obama and the GOP — along with some Democrats — over whether the United States should accept thousands of Syrians who are fleeing their war-torn country.
Critics of the president have called on him to halt the flow of refugees into the country in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Authorities have said that militants might be taking advantage of the routes into Western Europe being used by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing the war-torn Middle East.
The House passed a bipartisan bill on a veto-proof majority that would significantly slow the influx by creating additional screening requirements, a measure the White House has threatened to veto. The fate of the bill in the Senate remains uncertain.
Obama, as he has twice before during his nine-day trip, rejected the notion that providing safe haven to refugees amounted to a security risk.
“We have shown that we can welcome refugees and ensure our security — that there’s no contradiction,” he said at the refugee center. The children he met with were a mix of refugees and migrants from Burma, Somalia and Sudan, administration officials said.
“As long as I’m president,” Obama continued, “we will keep on stepping up and ensure America remains, as it has always been, a place where people who in other parts of the world are subject to discrimination and violence have in America a friend and a place of refuge.”
The president made his visit just hours after several Republican presidential candidates renewed their criticism of his refugee policies and his administration’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State and end the civil war in Syria. At a forum sponsored by Family Leader in Des Moines on Friday night, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has called on the administration to admit only Christian refugees from Syria, while barring Muslims, called Obama’s refugee policy “a disaster caused by the Obama/Clinton foreign policy.”
“It’s easy to toss cheap insults when no one can respond,” Cruz said, noting Obama had appeared to criticize him in remarks in Turkey and the Philippines this week. “It’s a simple, common sense proposition, of course, to defend the nation and not invite in people this administration cannot guarantee are not terrorists here to murder innocent Americans.”
With the president in Asia through Sunday, the Obama administration has struggled to hold ranks among Democrats over the debate on refugees. Forty-seven House Democrats backed the bill to slow the refugee flow, although Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said the legislation will not pass the Senate.
Obama has angrily accused Republicans of betraying American values, and the stark visual images of the president, wearing a navy suit and white shirt, sans tie, in a grade-school classroom with young refugees was aimed at humanizing the debate.
“What’s your name?” he asked one girl, who showed him her name tag. “Are you learning English? Yes?”
The president shook hands with another girl, 7, in a ponytail and said: “You’re very pretty.” Another girl told him she wanted to be an engineer, and Obama responded, “You’re going to be an excellent engineer. I can tell.”
After the classroom tour, the president met with refugees in their teens to discuss their journeys to Malaysia. None was from Syria. Many were Rohingya Muslims from Burma, also known as Myanmar, where the ethic group has face widespread repression and violence from the Buddhist majority. Obama said he hoped that after the recent elections in Burma appeared to elevate the democratic opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to power, the Rohingya would be treated better.
“This is the face of people all around the world who look to the United States as a beacon of hope,” Obama said. “American leadership is us caring about people who have been forgotten or who have been discriminated against or who’ve been tortured or who’ve been subject to unspeakable violence or who’ve been separated from families at very young ages.”