Questions of hope: State leaders voice concerns about Syrian refugees

At the end of a week that saw state leaders in Minnesota and across the county voicing their beliefs on how America should address concerns over refugees entering the U.S., one local representative said the discussion should be part of a broader national immigration discussion.

“As a nation, we need to look into immigration as a whole and refugee resettlement is a part of that,” state District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said Friday.

In the week after the Paris terrorist attacks, several state lawmakers called for caution and further screening of refugees, but Poppe cautioned that should be a federal-level discussion and not a state one.

While Poppe said security needs to be a priority, she added it’s an issue that can’t be addressed individually by states since transportation is open across the U.S. With the need for a federal policy, state level discussions won’t have much of an impact.

“It’s just sound bytes and it doesn’t really make a difference in the big picture,” she said.

While state District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks said he supports a full vetting process for refugees, he also said he hopes the situation is handled at the federal level.

House votes to bar refugees

Talks on refugees picked up in the last week at the federal level.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representative voted 289-137 to essentially bar refugees from the two war-ravaged countries while tighter entry restrictions are imposed. The Senate is yet to vote.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-1st District, was one of 47 Democrats who voted for the bill.

“I supported this legislation today because I believe it adds important safeguards to ensure additional security,” Walz said. “I believe doing so is critical to the success of any refugee program, and I will continue to fight to ensure we take every possible measure to protect our country.”

The bill, proposed by House Republicans, would mean extra hurdles for refugees who have to wait up to two years anyway before they’re allowed in the U.S. Yet it would make it difficult for President Barack Obama’s administration to follow through on a proposal to bring up to 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in 2016.

Speaking in Mankato Friday, Walz said that if the world wants to cut down on refugees, leading nations have to come together to prevent refugees from being created in the first place.

As Walz put it, the issue of refugees isn’t just a U.S. problem. The United States Human Rights Commission estimates 12 to 14.5 million refugees have been displaced from their homes and live in another country. About 6 million refugees have been displaced because of conflict.

There are about 60 million refugees worldwide displaced from their homes, including those seeking asylum in their own countries.

“We have not seen anything like this in anyone’s lifetime in here,” Walz said.

Uncertainty in the Senate

The 289-137 House vote was a veto-proof vote many saw as a blow to President Barack Obama’s plan to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. Though the lopsided vote gives Republicans leverage and shows that many Democrats feel free to abandon the lame-duck president, Congress adjourned until after Thanksgiving and its next moves were uncertain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., slotted the House bill for possible Senate consideration and said pausing the refugee process would be “the most reasonable and balanced thing for the administration to do.”

Yet whether that bill could reach the White House remained unclear. At least six Democrats would have to join Republicans to push it through the Senate and 13 Democrats would be needed for a veto-proof tally — which the chamber’s top Democrat painted as far-fetched.

“Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters.

One top Senate GOP aide said it was unlikely that chamber would consider the House bill. The aide said senators were more concerned about potential weak spots in a program that lets foreigners enter the U.S. without visas from 38 countries for short stays.

Senate Democrats also expressed interest in tightening the so-called visa waiver program. One proposal by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., included a bar against foreigners entering the U.S. without visas if they’ve visited Syria or Iraq in the past five years.

State leaders continue to show mixed views on the issue.

State District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, joined many Republicans in saying proper screening procedures are needed before Syrian refugees are accepted into the United States.

“Our heart breaks for these refugees and their families fleeing violence in Syria,” Bennett said  in a press release. “However, in the wake of recent attacks in Paris, Lebanon and elsewhere, keeping Minnesota families safe must be the No. 1 priority. We must make sure screening procedures will keep out terrorists who wish to hide among innocent refugees.”

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, wrote a letter to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton Monday, urging him to call on President Barack Obama to halt the acceptance of refugees from Syria until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security procedures and clearances.

Daudt said Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey recently testified that there are gaps in the United States’ refugee screening process.

Dayton said Wednesday in a reply letter that he has been assured by federal government leaders that all refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.

Dayton said he has been informed that nine Syrian refugees have settled in Minnesota since 1979, including a family of seven who arrived earlier this year.

Dayton said he doesn’t anticipate an influx of arrivals from Syria.

“I share your belief that we must be vigilant in keeping Minnesotans safe; however, I believe we can do so, while continuing to be a state and a nation that offers immigrants a better future full of hope and opportunity, not fear and prejudice,” Dayton said in his reply.

He said Monday he had no plans to bar Syrian refugees from entering Minnesota.

Bennett said she agreed with Daudt’s letter.

“We’re not saying no refugees; we’re saying because of the terrorist aspects of what is happening in the Middle East, we need to make sure we are properly screening them,” Bennett said.

Sparks, DFL-Austin, said reviewing the facts and making sure the public has a chance to weigh in on the process is important.

“We have to proceed very cautiously,” Sparks said. “We need to take a real close look at this to make sure we get it right.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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