Montana governor says safety his top priority, but won't block Syrian refugees

Montana governor says safety his top priority, but won't block Syrian refugees

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Gov. Steve Bullock emphasized the safety of Montanans as his "top priority,” but declined to join more than a dozen Republican governors who said Monday they would refuse to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states following Friday’s terrorist attacks on Paris.

“No Syrian refugees have been settled in the state, and we have had no formal requests to do so,” Bullock said in a statement. “If there are safety concerns about any refugees that are requesting settlement, they will be denied.”

At least 132 people were killed and hundreds more injured in several attacks in Paris Friday. Although several of the attackers have been identified as French or Belgian citizens, French prosecutors had said one of the suspects was found carrying a Syrian passport. But authorities later determined it was a fake purchased in Turkey so the man could pose as a refugee.

The attacks and fake passport have fueled debates over President Barack Obama’s plan to increase the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States to 10,000 in 2016. Some have expressed fear that doing so would allow ISIS terrorists into the country.

But it’s unclear how governors will keep their promise to turn away Syrian refugees, or to decide who poses a safety threat.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the authority to control immigration and refugee resettlement is a power of the federal government, not states, and the federal authority was spelled out by Congress with the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.

National refugee assistance organizations also have suggested that efforts to block Syrians through funding cuts to state programs that assist refugees could lead to discrimination lawsuits.

Mike Wessler, the governor’s spokesman, said the state is reviewing the federal process for screening refugees to ensure it is adequate. He did not return a request for clarification on who is leading the state’s review or how the state would decide to deny a request, which is not something the state currently considers.

Montana’s state refugee coordinator said she wasn't sure how denying a resettlement could be done.

“We’ve never done it,” Katherine Quittenton said. “Anybody who has wanted to stay here, we’ve assisted them.”

Only a handful

Only a handful of refugees settle in the state each year, assisted by Colorado-based Lutheran Family Services. In 2013, it was six Iraqis and an infant born to the family days after arriving in the country.

Of the 70,000 refugees accepted to the United States this year, so far only Cubans have landed in Montana, Quittenton said. Federal statistics for 2013 and 2014 did not show that any refugees had settled in Montana, likely because they initially settled somewhere else.

“Usually there’s some connection to the state,” Quittenton said. “One of our more recent Cuban refugees has a cousin here. Another Cuban refugee followed her boyfriend.”

Once Quittenton receives a request from Lutheran Family Services, she works to connect the refugees with the same job training and placement help provided for families who receive federal support through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. She also helps to connect them with a local social service office.

Those duties “are supposed to be about 8 percent of my job,” said Quittenton, who is the bureau chief for public assistance policy at the Human and Community Services Division.

“I am the sole person for Montana refugee resettlement,” she said. “I don’t have any opportunity to vet refugees who come here. And some of the ones we’ve had in the last couple years have just crossed over from Canada into Montana.”

Refugees seeking to enter the United States are first processed by one of nine federal Resettlement Support Centers located abroad and generally operated by nongovernmental organizations.

Once an application is prepared and biographical details collected, officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services review the information, complete a security screening and conduct an in-person interview.

Refugees also must undergo a health screening and secure a sponsorship from a U.S.-based resettlement agency. The process usually takes 18 to 24 months.

Congressional delegation

Montana’s congressional delegation has called for reviewing how the U.S. screens refugees to ensure they will not pose a safety threat.

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester does not oppose allowing Syrians to resettle in the U.S., but said through a spokesperson that he will be reviewing the background-check process for possible improvements.

Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines called for a halt to the president’s Syrian resettlement plan. Zinke introduced legislation Monday with Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., to bolster security screening requirements and supports a resolution that would pause all refugee resettlement until Congress passes a joint resolution to resume it.

“In the case of the Syrian refugees, most of them are male. Most of them are of military age, and yes, it is a significant security issue," Zinke said in a statement. “ISIS has said, and now they have proven, they will use this chaos to infiltrate ISIS members in the refugee population.”

According to the United Nations, nearly 4.3 million Syrians have registered as refugees. They are evenly split by gender and about half are children younger than 18.

In addition to halting Syrian resettlement in the U.S., Daines said in a statement that the nation should focus on eliminating the threat as much as strengthening its review of refugee applicants.

“While I have strong sympathy for those caught in the conflict in Syria and the region, the president’s current plan … only serves to open up our homeland to increased security risks, while doing nothing to solve the root cause of the crisis, which is the civil war in Syria,” he said. “We should instead be focusing our resources on helping refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries … so that refugees in need don’t have to risk their lives fleeing to Europe.”


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