Resettlement officials call for admission of Syrian refugees to U.S.

RYE, N.Y.  — Fear of Syrian refugees entering the United States in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris is misplaced and antithetical to U.S. values and some governors’ efforts to exclude them from their states is likely illegal, according to a coalition of refugee resettlement leaders.

Volunteers approach a raft overcrowded with migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos Nov. 17. (CNS photo | Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)

Syrian refugees are fleeing terror themselves and want the same things Americans do, including to live in safety and protect their children, Kevin Appleby said. He is the director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Appleby was one of four speakers on a Nov 17 news conference call convened to urge a calm and open response to the plight of Syrian refugees.

Speakers said of the more than 4 million Syrians who have fled their country, fewer than 2,000 have been resettled in the United States since 2011. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. would accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees in the 2016 fiscal year.

More than two dozen governors have said they would not accept refugees from Syria in their states because they are concerned about a possible link between the refugees and Islamic State, or ISIS, which took credit for attacks that killed at least 129 people and injured 352 in Paris Nov 13.

Appleby said to “turn our backs” on America’s history of offering safe haven “diminishes our standing and moral leadership in the world and our ability to bring nations together to address this humanitarian crisis.”

“If we pull up stakes and close our doors, we’re playing into their hands and strengthening them, not weakening them,” Appleby said, referring to the terrorists.

Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said: “Refugees undergo the most intensive security screening process of any people allowed to enter the U.S. The average processing time is two years and includes an in-person interview with an officer of the Department of Homeland Security and continuous security vetting by all U.S. intelligence agencies.”

“No refugee has ever committed a terrorist attack on our soil,” Limon said.

She said the U.S. instituted an additional layer of review for Syrian applicants.

Speakers said the U.S. refugee policy favored admitting people whose families are already in the country and vulnerable refugees, such as widows with children the elderly and the infirm who are unlikely to pose a security threat.

Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said people should be informed by facts and truth about the rigorous screening processes. “To insist they are inadequate or nonexistent is ill-informed,” she said.

Hartke said efforts by the United Nations to document and store refugee records including iris scans and other biometrics served its primary purpose to assure fair distribution of food allocations, but also enables it to track movement of refugees.

She said governors who resist refugee resettlement in their states are creating a climate of fear that harms people who have already been traumatized.

As a practical matter, governors have limited power to refuse refugees, speakers said.

“The federal government has plenary power to decide who arrives in the United States and has the ultimate say about how they are resettled,” Appleby said. It would be difficult for states to deny refugees, although they could make life difficult” by implementing funding cuts and “fomenting a negative atmosphere and fear-mongering,” he said.

Limon said, “Refugees are legal residents of the U.S. and may move wherever they wish without a governor’s permission.”

She said states generally do not spend their own funds on refugee resettlement, but use federal funds budgeted for that purpose. “If a state refuses federal funds, the feds can name another agent to have jurisdiction” to serve the refugees, she said.

Rejecting refugees because of their religion or national origin is “patently illegal,” Limon said. “I understand the government wants to protect the population, but it should also protect against discrimination.” Statements supporting discrimination in refugee admission “are not only offensive, but illegal and impractical,” Limon said.

She said the U.S. resettlement program began 40 years ago when 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were airlifted to the United States during the administration of President Gerald Ford.

“We’ve been processing refugees for 40 years. There have always been security checks,” Limon said. “It’s crucial for us to have a secure program. We live in the communities, too.”