Politics & Government

Haley backs efforts of faith groups to bring refugees to Spartanburg

Leaders in the faith community say they are eager to bring refugees to Spartanburg after Gov. Nikki Haley issued a letter to local legislators to address qualms about the issue.

Haley sent a letter Tuesday to the Spartanburg County Legislative Delegation. In the letter, Haley details the country's and South Carolina's humanitarian mission of welcoming refugees around the world to participate in the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, which has been in place since 1975.

Sixty refugees may call Hub City home as early as this year after World Relief, a faith-based organization sponsoring the resettlement, opened an office in Spartanburg.

The plans spurred debate between those eager to help refugees overseas and those skeptical of how immigrants will affect safety, funding and services.

"These people are in danger of losing their lives in their home countries for things such as aiding U.S. troops as translators or guides, membership of a religious minority, or regional war or genocide," Haley wrote in the letter.

She said those selected will be vetted and screened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and will be supported by local families, churches and nonprofits upon their arrival. She also called on the U.S. Department of State to provide greater transparency in the vetting process to ensure the program's safety.

"Just as we cannot allow fear to erode America's place in the world as accepting of immigrants who chose to come legally and contribute as citizens, nor can we allow ineffective federal bureaucracies to put our citizens at risk," Haley wrote.

State representatives and Spartanburg County Council members had sought answers from the governor's office after constituents raised concerns about a refugee resettlement program in Spartanburg.

World Relief local director Jason Lee said about 40 local church leaders have voiced support for the program and have offered to lend support to those arriving from overseas.

He said churches have signed on to designate families or groups of volunteers to guide refugees through the resettling process.

"It's a great opportunity for our community to bless others. I haven't heard anything from either side that would cause me to want to see us shut our community off from these people," said the Rev. D.J. Horton, the pastor of Anderson Mill Road Baptist Church.

Horton said he understands legislators have questions, and he hopes that the program's details will be laid out soon. He wants everyone to be supportive in the long run, he said.

"We're obligated. We're obligated as Christians to help the hurting," Horton said.

"God encourages his people to welcome a stranger," added Jim Goodroe, the director of missions for the Spartanburg County Baptist Network.

Lee said the program relies heavily on using volunteer teams from churches to help guide refugees to housing, services and jobs to acclimate to the community. Designated groups will meet the refugees at the airport and continue to be their guide and support system from there.

"We see them as viable contributing citizens to Spartanburg in years to come," Lee said.

About half of the refugees coming to Spartanburg are Christians, Lee said. He added that the "greatest opportunity" is to share the gospel with those outside the faith.

"We believe that the Bible calls us to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger, and that stranger the Bible is really talking about is the immigrants," Lee said. "Refugees are the world's most vulnerable people."

Lee and Goodroe referenced a study done out of Cleveland where researchers found that out of the 4,500 refugees brought to that area between 2000 and 2012, 75 percent of those older than 16 found jobs, and only 8 percent were still on any government assistance within two years.

Rep. Donna Hicks initially called for a town hall to solicit feedback about the plan, but she has put the gathering on hold now that details are coming forward. She said she has since met with organizers and state leaders and has received information to answer questions.

"What I learned is that World Relief is working with Spartanburg County. They're working on a system to make sure refugees are brought in and well taken care of," Hicks said.

She met with a World Relief leader who detailed plans for the program and learned how each refugee is funded through the state Department of Social Services, through federal grants, she said. Medical care was a concern for constituents, Hicks said, but said that refugees will be sent to the Middle Tyger River Community Center to use its free clinic and be cared for by interns with the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.

She, however, said terrorism remains an issue and said she hopes that World Relief can recognize Spartanburg residents' concerns about Islamic extremist groups.

She said she is trusting in the program's vetting process but asking that those being brought to Spartanburg not come from Syria, given her constituents' fears over who may be connected to terrorist groups.

"Of that 60, they hopefully can bring in somebody other than Syrians. If they want to make this work, it would behoove them to do that," she said. "I'm trying to trust the process. We'll just have to see."