Congress

S.C. takes a stand against Syrian refugees who haven’t come

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks about the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Senate is poised to pass a bill on Nov. 10, that bans moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States, something Barack Obama has been trying to do since he was sworn in as president. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks about the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Senate is poised to pass a bill on Nov. 10, that bans moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States, something Barack Obama has been trying to do since he was sworn in as president. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP

In the last four years, 731 refugees have been resettled in South Carolina. None have been from Syria – and the Palmetto State’s Republican delegation in Washington wants to make sure it stays that way.

Reports that one of the suspects involved in Friday’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and left more than 350 injured, came through Greece with a group of Syrian refugees sparked calls from Republican lawmakers and 30 governors, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states.

“The one thing I’ve learned from Paris is that we need to have a timeout on bringing refugees into this country until we have a system that we think will work,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News Radio on Monday.

South Carolina’s congressional delegation warned that it’s difficult to get the necessary background information to properly vet Syrian refugees. The members of Congress said their offices were inundated with calls from concerned constituents.

“We’ve received more calls on the Syrian refugee issue than we received on the possibility of Guantanamo coming to Charleston,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. said in an interview, referencing the scouting of the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., as a relocation facility for terrorist suspects now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

If you can’t vet who’s coming in, unlike people coming because of a famine or a hurricane, this could be a vehicle by which ISIS sympathizers could come in – people are saying wait, this doesn’t make sense to me.

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.

“Given what happened in Paris, and that one of the folks had a Syrian passport, people are very rightly concerned,” he said.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House immigration and border security subcommittee, announced that the refugee crisis in Syria will be the subject of a hearing on Thursday.

“We have a duty to ensure the necessary background investigations can be done to stop terrorists from exploiting Americans’ generosity and ruthlessly taking more innocent lives,” he said.

Sen. Tim Scott agreed, saying that while he has sympathy for the families caught up in the crisis, “in absence of a fail-proof system we simply cannot put American lives at risk.”

The State Department insists that its system for vetting refugees, which has an approval rate of about 50 percent, is sound.

In contrast to some others who have lived in refugee camps for generations, Syrians “tend to be a very, very heavily documented population,” a senior administration official said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters.

Until I can be assured that all potential refugees from Syria have no ties to terrorist organizations, I am requesting that the State Department not resettle any Syrian refugees in South Carolina.

Gov. Nikki Haley

“And members of families tend to have passports and family registries and military books, and they have a lot of information in most instances,” the official said.

The president determines the numbers for admitting refugees each year. All refugees go through a vetting process that takes between 18 and 24 months, according to the State Department.

In South Carolina, all refugees are resettled by two Christian relief organizations – neither of which has definitive plans to resettle families from Syria in the next year.

“We have had no Syrian refugees this year nor will we have any in 2016,” said Jason Lee, the director of the Spartanburg World Relief office. The organization has resettled 61 refugees in the last year, 84 percent of whom are “professing Christians.” Most have been from Burma and Congo, he said.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the only other organization that resettles refugees in South Carolina, said it brought 185 people into the state in fiscal 2015. The majority were from Burma and Eritrea.

The Obama administration has said it plans to accept 85,000 refugees, including 10,000 Syrians, in the next year.

“If that holds true, our plan is to continue to expand the sites that we place Syrians in, including the Carolinas,” said the Lutheran services communications director, Miji Bell.

Although no final decisions have been made, in that case “it is likely that Columbia may see Syrian refugees in 2016,” she said.

Once these two organizations have brought them in, the South Carolina Refugee Resettlement Program helps newly arrived refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. It offers financial assistance, medical help including health screenings, and social services such as vocational skills training, interpreters and English language classes. These programs are entirely funded by the federal government, South Carolina Department of Social Services spokeswoman Karen Wingo said.

41 South Carolina’s rank out of the 50 states in the number of refugees it has accepted, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan is part of the effort to draft legislation that would block funding for refugee programs by attaching it to the spending bill coming up in December.

“You’re not seeing women and children and families,” Duncan said Monday on the conservative radio program Breitbart News, explaining why he wants to block the admission of Syrian refugees. “You’re seeing a lot of military-age males. . . . Be alarmed, America, about that. Be alarmed.”

The State Department’s figures dispute that. Half of Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children, a quarter have been adults over 60, and only 2 percent have been single males of combat age, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

The lone South Carolina Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn, stood with other leaders of the House Democratic Caucus at a news conference Tuesday as its chairman, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., declared that barring refugees because of their nationality “would be an overreaction based on fear, and perhaps hate.”

“750,000 refugees have been resettled in America since 9/11. Not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges in the United States of America,” Becerra said.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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