Refugee advocates are up against the wall following a wave of tough rhetoric surrounding Syrian refugees that threatens to cut off the migrants' access to the country or some social services.
Tough new restrictions may never become law, given the divide on Capitol Hill and the prospect that states won’t be able to undermine the Obama administration’s plans for the refugees.
But resettlement organizations, faced with anti-refugee sentiment sweeping the country, aren’t taking any chances. Following a week of harsh pressure, the groups are preparing for the prospects of a legal battle.
“We are being — a polite word would be harassed by state governors and their governmental staff for information that they’ve never asked for before,” said Lavinia Limón, the CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of the nine nonprofit groups that help to place refugees around the country.
“This is America and we’re very concerned about protecting these refugees from the ugliness that we hear every day on the television,” she added. “I hope they don’t learn English too quickly; they’ll have to understand what certain people are saying.”
The country has been on edge about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after last week’s deadly attacks in Paris, with much of the anxiety focusing in on President Obama’s plans to let 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country over the next year. Concern about the refugees followed indications that at least one of the men involved in the Paris violence appeared to get into Europe using a fake Syrian passport.
On Thursday, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation to impose new restrictions on refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.
Refugee advocates were quick to deride the bill, warning that it could effectively put the brakes on efforts to shelter refugees fleeing the chaos that has swept across the two countries.
Creating the extra certification programs that the legislation requires “could take years,” the advocacy coalition Refugee Council USA wrote to lawmakers this week, leaving refugees to “languish in camps and dangerous situations.”
The bill might never become law, however, since the issue won’t come up in the Senate until after Thanksgiving and Democrats are touting their ability to block it. President Obama has also pledged to veto the legislation.
Still, refugee supporters say that the House bill is just the most tangible manifestation of politically motivated outrage that is nonetheless having an impact on people fleeing conflict zones for the U.S.
More than half the nation’s governors have tried to block Syrian refugees from coming to their state, at least temporarily, and a state lawmaker in Tennessee called for the National Guard to “gather up” the ones already there.
Republican presidential candidates have also weighed in with tough talk, with Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Texas) introducing a bill that goes even further than the House legislation and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson comparing the refugees to “rabid dogs.”
Refugee groups insist they aren’t being bowed by the rhetoric, and insist that local communities have opened their arms to the refugees.
“We are continuing to operate as we always do,” said Jen Smyers, the director of policy and advocacy with Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program: “welcoming refugees from all over the world to locations across the United States.”
However, one Syrian family that was originally planning to come to Indianapolis on Wednesday — after waiting for three years in Jordan — was forced to change plans when Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) declared that he would not accept Syrian refugees.
Instead, the family was sent to Connecticut, in the first clear change to result from the recent attitude about refugees
Refugee advocates expect it won’t be the last.
It appears unlikely that states will be able to block refugees from entering their states or cut off benefits, such as Medicaid or food stamps, which are federal programs but administered by the states. The Obama administration has noted that the programs are federal, and that the law would bar states from taking matters into their own hands.
Yet passions surrounding the refugees are high, and it’s easy to imagine that state officials would stand their ground. Judging from the imperfect analogy of Kim Davis — the Kentucky county clerk who became a conservative icon for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples — critics of the Obama administration have an appetite to lionize local officials who stand up to the federal government.
Refugee advocates are already preparing for states to dig in.
“We assume it’s going to happen because governors have said so,” said Limón.
In response, advocates have discussed the possibility of a lawsuit, she said.
“We’re going to have to look for a remedy, and I think a legal remedy is where we may have to go.”
But even if the laws remain the same and groups aren’t forced into the courts, advocates say that the hostile tone that is dominating the political dispute is devastating all on its own.
“For somebody who’s experienced trauma, that can actually re-traumatize them,” said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director for church mobilization with World Relief, another group that resettles refugees.
“We’ve had refugees asking ‘Are we going to be kicked out?’ 'Where will they send us to?’ ‘Will they send us back to a country where there’s a war raging?’” he added.
“There’s a lot of fear in the refugee community right now.”
Refugee groups steel for legal fight
By Julian Hattem - 11/22/15 07:22 AM EST