The S.C. Senate approved a state registry of refugees Wednesday — a day after terrorists bombed a Brussels airport and subway station, killing more than 30 people and injuring another 250.
The Senate voted 39-6 to start the registry, which could be the first of its kind in the nation. The proposal, first raised after terrorist attacks in France and California last year, still needs approval from the GOP-controlled S.C. House before going to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature.
Haley has expressed concerns about the vetting of refugees to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and FBI Director James Comey. Registry backers said they are concerned terrorists could enter the state under the guise of being refugees.
Several dozen refugees entered South Carolina last year, and an estimated 200 will arrive in the state this year.
A provision in the bill would hold refugee sponsors — often church organizations — liable in civil court if a refugee commits a violent crime or act of terrorism. That provision could slow or halt refugees from entering South Carolina, said state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who co-sponsored the bill.
“With the danger today of a terrorist infiltrating the refugee program, we have no other option than to enroll this information,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to choose our own citizens over those who are not citizens of our country.”
Registry opponents argued tracking refugees could add a stigma to people escaping violence and oppression in their home countries.
“In general, registries would be disfavored and not really what most people considered American,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, one of six Democrats to vote against the bill. “We often don’t like the idea of the government keeping tabs on everybody.”
Senators agreed to several changes in the bill before passing the registry. If passed, the state would require:
▪ Sponsors to enroll refugees with the S.C. Department of Social Services within 30 days of their entering the state. The original proposal had refugees registering with the agency.
▪ Social Services to forward refugee information to the State Law Enforcement Division.
▪ State Law Enforcement Division and local law enforcement agencies to check whether refugees pose a safety risk.
Information about refugees would not be made public. The original bill called for posting the registry online.
The revised bill also eliminates a ban on using state or local government money to aid refugees. Opponents said refugees could not attend public schools or get help from police officers or firefighters if a ban was part of the proposal.
New York is the only other state considering a refugee registry, the Associated Press reported.
“It’s the first time the Legislature in the state of South Carolina and the Legislature in the state of New York are on the same page,” Bryant said. “New York has seen attacks. They have experienced it first hand. Hopefully, this legislation will prevent an attack here in South Carolina.”