Gov. Rick Scott and at least 20 other governors closing the door on Syrian refugees and turning them away would be "nothing less than signing a death warrant for tens of thousands," said Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She spoke during a media call that brought together a coalition of humanitarian and refugee resettlement leaders, who say fear of refugees is unwarranted.
On Monday, Scott joined other governors in refusing to accept Syrian refugees into their respective states. Scott wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, citing the Paris attacks as to why Florida shouldn't be taking in the refugees. On Tuesday, the coalition of humanitarian and refugee resettlement leaders responded.
Specifically, the group described screening mechanisms already in place to check on those who enter the country, saying refugees entering the United States are the most thoroughly vetted in the world. The governors' comments, the group says, are misplaced. Furthermore, states lack power to turn away refugees; such decisions are made by the federal government.
"We have been processing refugees for 40 years, and we've always had security checks," says Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "Every intelligence agency is engaged in screening refugees, and the screening is ongoing during the processing time, which averages about two years. Special care is taken in screening men."
Scott, who acknowledged that Florida doesn't have the authority to keep the federal government from funding a relocation of refugees to the state, called on Congress to take action. The State Department announced a plan earlier this year to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.
On Tuesday morning, Scott defended his letter and comments and called on the federal government to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees during his appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box.
"Let's slow down," he said. "Let's take our time. Let's find out what happened in Paris. Let's find out how good our security is. Let's find out our vetting versus the French vetting. Let's see what happened before we rush into allowing 10,000 more Syrians into our country."
But Kevin Appleby, director of Migration Policy for U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, points out that there has never been a refugee security breach that has led to a terrorist attack in the United States.
"There hasn't been a security breach where there has been violent attack, certainly not to the degree of Paris, or a coordinated attack that came from a refugee," Appleby says. "That shows that the program is pretty tightly secured. And with the Syrian refugees, we show special scrutiny. We have been settling Syrians for many years, and there have been no incidents. Why are we focusing on this specific population when there are many other ways to get into the country rather than as a refugee?"
"No refugee has ever committed an attack on U.S. soil. The 9/11 terrorists came in as students and tourists," Limon added. "In the Somali community in the St. Paul area, there was a case of a radicalized young man trying to travel to Syria, the cooperation of local and federal agencies were able to catch him. In the last two or three cases where a young man had been stopped from traveling abroad, it was the person's family that contacted law enforcement, which is much more effective than what they've done in Europe."
Limon also points out that the screening process includes fingerprint analysis and bio data that is then run through and shared with law enforcement and national security agencies.
"There are nine different agencies under contract with government," Limon says. "We work with them for months and sometimes years. It is crucial to us that we have a secure program. The Refugee Act of 1980 envisioned cooperation between agencies, the states, and the federal government, and it has worked. The governors creating this poison against one nationality is disturbing."
As for Scott's power in the matter, Appleby says that states do not have the authority to keep refugees from entering.
"The federal government has the power to regulate who comes into the U.S. The Refugee Act of 1980 says that the federal government has ultimate say on how refugees are settled in the process. Any potential court case a state would bring forth would have a difficult time proving why they should deny certain nationalities from entering into the country. Now, if they really wanted to make life difficult, they could refuse the federal money coming into the state to help refugees settle."
Hartke, of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, says that if it was ISIS' wish for the Paris attacks to provoke the United States to react with fear, Scott and the other governors "are granting them their wish."
"We're calling on public officials first to understand who the refugees are, what has driven them from their homelands, and why they'd want to start a new life in America," Hartke says. "Everything must be informed with facts and truths as per our security screenings. To dismiss it as 'inadequate' is ill-informed. At this moment, we must not be a nation consumed by fear. We must not close the door."
Added Limon, whose group has helped around 2,000 refugees get settled in the past three years: "When refugees are persecuted based on nationality and ethnicity, it is pretty amazing."
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