Bill targeting refugees fails

Syrian refugees in Jordan. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jordan.

By Lindsay Tahan |
A controversial state bill aimed at establishing additional screening for Syrian refugees has failed to advance in the Florida Legislature.

Before the bill’s demise, Florida Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, had complained that some media outlets had been putting out “misinformation” about the bill.

“What some articles say is that this bill will empower governor to use military force to prevent refugees from coming into Florida, this is not even close to that,” Ray told the Gargoyle. “I would have never written a legislative on that so that is just utter nonsense, which then gave way to targeting somebody, using the term ‘profiling.'”

Ray said he was not trying to stop immigrants from entering the country. He only wanted to try to determine if they posed a threat. He said the governor should have a right to protect citizens from any danger that immigrants may pose.

Florida Rep. Lake Ray

Florida Rep. Lake Ray

House Bill 1095, also known as Prevention of Acts of War, stated:

“The Governor is authorized to: use all powers and resources, including police powers, emergency powers, and military force, to prevent a restricted person from entering into or resettling in the state and to prevent a restricted person residing in the state from committing violent acts of war, unless the Governor has reasonable cause to believe that the restricted person is not an invader.”

HB 1095 also said that “the Governor is authorized to monitor the presence of a restricted person entering into, resettling in, or residing in the state. The Governor is authorized to adopt emergency rules and permanent rules necessary to implement this section.”

Ray proposed the bill in light of the refugee crisis in Syria and the fear that refugees entering the U.S. might be terrorists.

“This bill is not about profiling,” Ray said. “I desperately feel for these people. But I cannot risk my humanitarian concerns without first ensuring that I am protecting the security and interest of the people and that is what the bill basically does.

“When you deal with immigrants it is imperative to understand the difference. There are many good people and we should bring them in.”

Ray said when Barack Obama decided he was going to continue bringing people from Syria and Libya, the president would not tell governors who they were bringing in or where they were settling these people. He says that the governor is empowered to protect the state.

“Constitution says we must ensure tranquility. If there is an absence of tranquility, the entire Constitution falls apart,” says Ray. “This bill’s intension is to not set up a form of government or increase agency outlook, but to get Florida Department of Law Enforcement – FDLE – to engage in federal authorities to find out who they are bringing in and if they cannot have assurance of who they are bringing in, then we tell those agencies who are responsible that they can’t settle here in Florida.”

Syrian refugees in Jordan. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jordan.

Syrian refugees in Jordan. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jordan.

HB 1095 states: “the Governor and the Attorney General are independently directed to take any action authorized by law to prevent the entry into or resettlement in the state of a restricted person by the Federal Government or any person unless the Governor has reasonable cause to believe that the restricted person is not an invader.”

“I am happy to bring people in. It has to be a culture shock to come to certain areas,” Ray said. “It is not about trying to get military or anything like that, it’s about trying to get the federal government to have a conversation with us to understand the policy to see if it’s the right thing so nothing more horrendous can occur.”

HB 1095 says, “the Governor and the Attorney General are independently authorized to review and challenge the lawfulness of any federal law or regulation encouraging or providing for the entry into or resettlement of restricted persons in the state.”

The U.S. government vetting process for refugees can take 18 months. Authorities should have the power to screen out potential terrorists, Ray said.

“The greater concern is how do I protect the innocent Muslim people,” he said. “If there are bad apples, we shouldn’t be bringing them in. We want to do the good humanitarian things we can do.”

Mark Schlakman of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights said that Democrats generally opposed the bill while Republicans favored it.

The bill died on March 11 before reaching the governor’s desk.

According to Schlakman, Syrian and Iraqi refugees undergo extensive screening that takes between 18 to 24 months, which is the most thorough screening for any non-U.S. citizen.

“The process begins with the United Nations and then entails further screening by various U.S. government agencies. While no process is perfect, this process is robust,” said Schlakman.

Laila Abdelaziz, legislative and government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, said the bill forced “state law enforcement to profile and monitor law abiding individuals in Florida, a practice that is un-American and unconstitutional, simply because they are refugees or immigrants. The bill language also includes an exemption for refugees or immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, so, again, forcing law enforcement to target individuals based on their national origin.”

According to Abdelaziz, her organization along with the ACLU of Florida, immigrant rights advocates and many legal professionals throughout the state opposed the bill because “it improperly targets refugees and immigrants and would force the state to profile individuals on their national origin.”

“Syrian refugees are the most scrutinized individuals that enter the U.S.,” she said. “Five Federal law enforcement agencies are involved in the screening process, this process includes a USCIS agent that leaves the country to interview applicants in person, biometric data is screened, and the screening process typically takes 18 to 24 months, twice as long as the screening process would take for refugees from other regions of the world.

“As a nation, we should absolutely be vigilant and concerned for our safety, but Syrian refugees are fleeing political carnage and are the most direct victims of terror groups, they are not criminals. It is unconstitutional and un-American to profile populations in the U.S. because of their national origin. We remember the internment of Japanese Americans as a dark chapter in our nation’s history, we should learn from out own history, not repeat it.

“There is absolutely no evidence of Syrian refugees in the U.S. posing a threat to our national security. Refugees are one of the most vulnerable populations in our global community, it is our responsibility as a developed nation to provide refuge to individuals fleeing war and to also work towards a peaceful solution to the political instability that has led to the conditions which refugees are fleeing,” said Abdelaziz.

Travis Trice, the church mobilizer at World Relief in Jacksonville, says that World Relief is one of the only organizations mobilizing and equipping Christians to serve refugees in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S.

World Relief began over 70 years ago as “War Relief” serving refugees after World War II. World Relief is located in multiple countries around the world and has 26 U.S. field offices.

World Relief is working with local churches to provide urgent supplies in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, supplying temporary shelters, hygiene items and trauma therapy.

Trice says that the refugees coming to World Relief are in most need of friendship and opportunity. “Twenty-two percent of registered Syrian refugees are males between the ages of 18 to 59. The majority are mostly women and children among registered Syrian refugees,” he said.

“Last year two percent of our total refugee arrivals were from Syria. Clients are given services by World Relief for only 90 days before most of them are expected to become self-sufficient. Refugees also arrive to the U.S. in debt to the government as they are expected to pay back all of their travel expenses. Many of the items they are given are from donations from local churches and communities,” said Trice.

Trice said the reason why there is so much controversy over letting the Syrian refugees into the states because terrorism is a very real thing and people are allowing fear to creep into their imaginations and they lose empathy for some of those who have been most affected by terrorism.

“There is also an anti-immigrant rhetoric that seems to be growing among some Americans. I believe this is connected with hot-button issues like U.S. immigration law,” said Trice.

“The U.S. has resettled well over three million refugees to date. Of those millions of people we have only had security threats posed from three to four individuals who were apprehended. To date, there has never been an attack on U.S. soil by an individual who came in through the refugee process. We have more mass killings by homegrown terrorists than any other people group. I am actually proud of this program that our country has stood by for many years and I think it’s a shame that many Americans are dumping their fears into a knee-jerk reaction against refugees. Less than one-half of 1 percent of refugees even get the chance at starting at starting a new life. It saddens me that after fleeing war and persecutions they arrive to the U.S. only to hear people say that they are not welcome.”

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