More than a dozen S.C. lawmakers Monday called on Gov. Nikki Haley to block international refugees from coming to South Carolina.
The calls came after attacks that killed more than 120 people in Paris over the weekend, renewing fears of terrorists coming to the United States while posing as refugees.
Haley has backed the efforts of faith groups in Spartanburg to resettle refugees in South Carolina. However, late Monday, Haley asked the U.S. State Department not to resettle any Syrian refugees in South Carolina, citing the difficulty of checking their backgrounds.
State Senate Majority Leaders Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, wrote to the governor, saying, “With the bombings and shootings in Paris this weekend, we need to be even more vigilant about protecting the state of South Carolina and her citizens. We do not want potential terrorists in our state.”
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State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, and Rep. Mike Burns, R-Greenville, co-signed a separate letter urging Haley to “immediately halt the refugee resettlement program in South Carolina.”
Twelve other S.C. House Republicans, including Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, sent a third letter to Haley, noting “at least six other governors have decided to reject the federal government’s plans to relocate refugees within their borders. We urge you to do the same as quickly as possible.”
The Islamic State terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. One of the terrorists who took part in that attack is thought to have entered Europe with refugees fleeing Syria, a stronghold for the terrorist organization.
A spokesman for one of two groups that has relocated refugees to the state said Monday that neither his group nor another has brought any Syrian refugees into South Carolina. Instead, the spokesman added, 90 percent of the refugees that his group has helped have come from Burma and the Congo.
Talking to reporters Monday, Haley said she was not aware of any Syrian refugees coming to South Carolina.
However, she said she plans to find out whether that has changed. “If we think in any way whatsoever South Carolinians are going to be in danger, we’re going to change our policy.”
No Syrian refugees have arrived in South Carolina this year, said Jason Lee, director of the S.C. office of World Relief, which helps churches minister to and serve refugees in the Greenville-Spartanburg area.
Lee said it was his understanding that Lutheran Services Carolinas, the other S.C. refugee organization, also has not brought any Syrian refugees into the state. That group did not return phone calls Monday.
About 90 percent of the 61 refugees that World Relief moved to the Spartanburg and Greenville areas this year are from Burma or the Congo, Lee said. The rest were other Africans and one Iraqi family, he added.
Often, “refugees are fleeing terrorists themselves,” Lee said.
World Relief follows a “very rigorous” security screening process that takes 18 to 24 months for incoming refugees, Lee said.
World Relief has approval to bring an additional 116 refugees to the Spartanburg area in 2016, Lee said. None are Syrian.
“We grieve with the situation that’s happened in Paris,” Lee said, adding, “We hope people understand there are millions of refugees displaced and we’re guided by a biblical call, a Christian call, to try to help them.”
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said a knee-jerk decision to close U.S. borders to refugees is “not who we are as the American people,” calling on Haley not to stop the programs.
“What about the guy who’s fought in combat with American Special Forces for a decade?” asked Smith, a major in the S.C. National Guard.
Smith, who served in Afghanistan, said one of his interpreters there recently drowned when trying to flee to freedom along the refugee trail from Turkey to Europe. The interpreter, who had worked alongside Smith for almost seven months, was trying to obtain a special immigrant visa to enter the United States that is offered to interpreters who aid U.S. forces.
Haley said she planned to talk to U.S. Homeland Security and the FBI officials Monday about refugees being brought to South Carolina.
Haley added the refugees being brought to the state are people who have been persecuted for being Christians or for their political beliefs. Some also are interpreters who assisted the U.S. military “and saved our American lives and so, in turn, we saved theirs.”
Refugees in S.C. through World Relief
World Relief is a national agency that works with churches to help minister and assist refugees.
61 refugees have come to S.C. through World Relief since the agency opened its Spartanburg office in late May
116 more refugees could come next year
0 refugees have come or are planned to arrive from Syria
Haley asks feds to not send Syrian refugees to South Carolina
Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been supportive of refugee resettlement in South Carolina, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday saying she now questions the ability of federal agents to thoroughly vet Syrian refugees and asked that no Syrians be sent here.
“Until I can be assured that all potential refugees from Syria have no ties to terrorist organizations, I am requesting that the State Department not resettle any Syrian refugees in South Carolina,” she wrote after talking with intelligence officials and reviewing statements on the subject.
A Haley spokesman has said the governor can’t prevent refugees from being resettled through federally approved agencies.