In the wake of terror attacks across Europe, the South Carolina Senate passed a bill last month that would create a database of refugees placed in the state under the federal Refugee Resettlement Program.
The bill, which passed 39-6 on March 23, would require refugees to register with the state’s Department of Social Services within 30 days of resettlement in South Carolina. That registry would not be available to the public, according to the bill.
South Carolina is the first state in the country to consider this type of refugee registry system.
After a refugee is enrolled by a sponsor, DSS must provide information to the state’s Law Enforcement Division, which is required to confirm the refugee does not “pose a public safety risk.”
Supporting lawmakers say the federal government doesn’t provide enough information to the state on refugees being settled in the South Carolina through the Refugee Resettlement Program.
Opponents say the bill could open a door for racial profiling and unfair punishments on organizations that facilitate the refugee resettlement process.
A measure in the bill that has caused backlash among advocates places the refugee’s sponsor under liability if the refugee “acts in a reckless, willful or grossly negligent manner,” commits an act of terrorism or commits a violent crime that results in injury to a person or damage property, or theft of property.
Bedrija Jazic is the Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services for Lutheran Services Carolinas, a nonprofit organization that resettles refugees in both Carolinas.
She said amendments added to the Senate bill have made it more acceptable to refugee advocacy groups, but placing civil liability on nonprofits and sponsorship organizations remains a major concern.
“Putting liability on us for someone else’s actions, when that refugee has been already through a rigorous vetting process through federal government program, to say the least is unfair,” Jazic said. “It may get harder for refugees who are in need of help to seek resettlement in this state.”
Sen. Ronnie Sabb, a Williamsburg County Democrat who voted for the bill, said there’s nothing in the legislation that discriminates against any specific race or religion. The purpose of the bill, he said, is to allow the state to obtain basic information that the federal government doesn’t give.
“If that information were coming to us, then there would be no need for this registry system,” he said. “Let’s face it. It is important for us to know who’s coming into South Carolina. A public registry isn’t necessary, but there needs to be check and balances in regards to who is in our state.”
A rising concern among Americans is would-be terrorists entering the United States under the guise of being a Middle Eastern refugee.
Jazic said the likelihood of terrorists entering the United States through a refugee program is slim because of the “rigorous vetting process” by the federal government.
“Lutheran Services has been resettling refugees in South Carolina since 1992, and none of them have ever been convicted of serious crime,” she said. “I think that speaks louder than anything. People are concerned about refugees from the Middle East, specifically those of the Muslim faith. But we’ve resettled people from all different races, religions and backgrounds in South Carolina. The fact is, most of those resettled are Christian refugees.”
Sabb agreed that it’s critical for refugees to have the same rights and protections as any other citizen of South Carolina but said there also needs to be state documentation in case there is an abuse of the refugee system.
“There is that element out there who would attempt to use the refugee status to come into our country and attempt to do harm to the innocent,” Sabb said. “I think we have an obligation to be gatekeepers and assure that we are safe.”
Under the proposed law, state and local police would be required to “confirm that any refugees placed in South Carolina by the federal government pursuant to the Refugee Resettlement Program do not pose a public safety risk.”
Originally, the legislation would have banned state expenditures directly or indirectly benefiting a refugee placed in South Carolina under the Refugee Resettlement Program – potentially including emergency and law enforcement services.
The South Carolina House of Representatives will take up discussion on the bill after its return from break on April 12.