By Maureen Groppe, Star Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Indiana drew national attention this week after Gov. Mike Pence asked that a Syrian refugee family be sent to another state, the first redirection of a refugee family since more than half the nation’s governors raised security concerns about Syrians. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy welcomed the family Wednesday, saying that giving them a home was the moral thing to do. How the controversy unfolded:
How did this start?
Two days after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said his state would not accept any more refugees from Syria until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did a “full review of security clearances and procedures.” More than half the nation’s governors — all Republicans but one— soon raised similar objections.
What’s the concern?
The Paris attackers who have been identified so far were citizens of European countries. But a Syrian passport was found near the body of one attacker. Police said the passport, which they determined was fake, had received a document protecting the holder from being deported for six months. The protection was given on a Greek island where thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants have gone, according to The Washington Post. Germany’s top security official said the passport may have been planted in an attempt by the terrorists to create a fake trail and make Europeans afraid of refugees.
What did Gov. Pence do?
On Monday, Pence directed the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration to “suspend” resettlement of Syrian refugees “pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved.” FSSA sent a letter Tuesday to Indianapolis-based Exodus Refugee Immigration asking them to send elsewhere a Syrian family of three set to arrive in Indianapolis the next day. The agency also asked Catholic Charities Indianapolis to redirect a family of four scheduled to arrive Dec. 10. Both families has been in Jordan for years after fleeing Syria’s civil war.
Governors can’t bar anyone admitted into the United States from living in their state. Legal scholars also say governors can’t refuse to help one type of refugee while assisting others. (The help comes from benefits like health care, job training and other services that might be funded by the federal government but are administered by state agencies.) Federal officials, however, say they don’t want to send a refugee where they’re not wanted. And the head of Exodus said she didn’t want to jeopardize benefits for the Syrian family – or for any other refugee – by defying Pence’s request.
What happened to the Syrian family?
Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a program of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, agreed to accept the family. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy personally greeted the Syrians in New Haven because, he said, he wanted them to understand that “not every American and not every American governor is the same.”
What happened to the Syrian family scheduled to arrive next month?
Catholic Charities has not said how it will respond to Pence’s request that they go elsewhere.
What is the screening process for refugees?
Of the millions of Syrians who have fled the country, the United Nations recommends to the United States those likely to qualify for refugee status here. The Obama administration says it gives priority to the most vulnerable Syrians, including female-headed households, children, torture victims and those with severe medical conditions.
Background checks, which include interviews overseas, fingerprinting and biometric investigations, are completed by multiple federal agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. The screening process can take 18 to 24 months.
Pence says that both FBI Director James Comey and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have told Congress there are gaps in the available data used for background checks. Comey testified last month there’s a “less robust data set” about Syria than the U.S. had on Iraqi refugees because it’s more difficult to gather intelligence in a failed state.
“Everyone in the intelligence community is focused on trying to mitigate this risk by querying well and also finding additional sources of information so we can check against it,” he said.
The White House organized a call Tuesday with governors and officials from the agencies that screen refugees. Pence participated in the call but said his concerns were not allayed.
The administration also briefed lawmakers on the screening process. But a majority of House members, including 47 Democrats, voted Thursday to impose new requirements on refugees from Iraq and Syria. They include having the director of national intelligence and the heads of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security personally certify that each applicant is not a security threat.
Indiana’s seven Republican House members voted for the new rules and the state’s two Democrats opposed them.
How has the Obama administration responded?
President Obama threatened to veto the legislation, if it is approved by the Senate. The administration says the bill would create significant delays and obstacles for refugees without providing meaningful additional security for Americans.
The White House said 2,174 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and “not a single one has been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds.”
Obama plans to bring in up to 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. French President Francois Hollande said his country will take in 30,000 refugees over the next two years.
Simon Henshaw, a top State Department official on refugees, told reporters Thursday the administration has increased staffing and budget to step up screening of the approximately 70,000 refugees admitted from all countries each year, to the 85,000 the administration plans to admit over the next year.
How many refugees does Indiana take in?
About 40 Syrian refugees have settled in Indiana since 2010, according to the State Department. The top recipient states have been California (261), Texas (248) and Michigan (217).
The total number of refugees Indiana has accepted from around the world since 2010 is 8,518 — 82 percent of them from Burma.
How can someone help the refugees?
Some Hoosiers have reached out to help Syrian refugees, by raising money or offering words of support to the family sent to Connecticut. IRIS, the Connecticut nonprofit that resettled the Syrian family, is accepting donations at www.irisct.org.
Hoosiers can also donate or volunteer their time through Indiana groups that help refugees, including Exodus (www.exodusrefugee.org) and Catholic Charities Indianapolis (www.archindy.org/cc/indianapolis).
(Contact Maureen Groppe at firstname.lastname@example.org or @mgroppe on Twitter.)