News

Gov. Wolf defends accepting Syrian refugees

Written by The Associated Press | Nov 18, 2015 2:50 PM
refugees_welcome_arizona.jpg

Supporters for the welcoming of Syrian refugees pause during a rally at the Arizona Capitol Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in Phoenix. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has joined a growing number of governors calling for an immediate halt to the placement of any new refugees in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris. The U.S. State Department says Arizona has received 153 Syrian refugees so far this year. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(Harrisburg) -- Governor  Tom Wolf is telling state lawmakers that he's not backing down on his willingness to continue accepting Syrian refugees who are fleeing persecution and death, and says states don't have the authority to refuse refugees admitted by the federal government. 

Wolf, a Democrat, sent the two-page letter Tuesday evening to lawmakers after some Republicans urged Wolf to block refugees' entry to Pennsylvania following the Paris terror attacks. 

He says the federal government has an extensive refugee screening process that takes an average of 12 to 16 months.

"Make sure they are vetted properly and I think if that's done, we should continue Pennsylvania's multi-century tradition of being a welcoming place for immigrants," he says.

But, some Republican state lawmakers are questioning the process.

GOP Senator Ryan Aument of Lancaster County signed his name to a letter to the governor.

"My chief concern is that Governor Wolf is taking seriously the need to effectively coordinate with the federal government, which is authorizing these relocations," he says.

The screening includes an in-person interview, health and biometric screening, and involvement from anti-terrorism agencies.

Wolf says he's asked his administration to recommend ways to strengthen the process. 

Wolf also joined a Tuesday evening conference call between President Barack Obama and governors. 

Republican governors in 29 states, as well as the Democratic governor in New Hampshire has asked for the resettlement to stop until security concerns can be addressed.

Editor's note: Following is Gov. Tom Wolf's letter to state lawmakers who have called for him to stop accepting refugees from Syria.

Dear Member: Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding the Syrian refugee resettlement. I understand the fears of many in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Beirut, and this letter is meant to address many of those concerns, as well as explain the extensive vetting process utilized by the federal government before a refugee even enters the country and the limitations on any state's ability to stop federal resettlement of refugees. We must not forget that those fleeing Syria -- and other places in crisis -- are families, elderly, and orphaned children seeking to escape a daily life that includes the same horrific violence that occurred in Paris.

As governor of Pennsylvania, my first priority is protecting the commonwealth. I believe we can keep Pennsylvania safe while also ensuring that Pennsylvania stays true to its values and builds on its rich history of accepting immigrants and refugees from around the world. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. Our commonwealth can be a safe haven for refugees fleeing the humanitarian crises across the world, and, as we have for centuries, we must work with the federal government to make sure all proper safeguards are in place.

Despite the implication of some, states do not have the authority to refuse to accept refugees that are admitted by the federal government. The Refugee Act of 1980 authorizes the president to admit refugees who face persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This Act also creates the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program to provide for the effective resettlement of refugees and to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States. The resettlement process is federally driven and federally funded/

To ensure the safety of the commonwealth, Pennsylvania will continue working with the federal government to make certain that all individuals have gone through the proper screening process, and we will encourage the federal government to continually improve and strengthen its process. I have further directed Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services and Office of Homeland Security to review the federal government's process and make any additional recommendations to strengthen these already extensive safeguards.

To this end, the federal government has an extensive refugee screening and vetting process in place. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees receives applications from refugees and evaluates them for resettlement, based on vulnerability and other criteria. A Department of State Resettlement Support Center conducts pre-screening and then refers the case to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for adjudication. The United States process of screening and vetting refugee applicants takes an average of 12 -- 16 months.

Refugees seeking to resettle in America are subject to the highest level of security checks, which includes an in-person interview, a full health and biometric screening, and the involvement from the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel to the United States until all of the required security checks have been completed and cleared. Once this process is complete, the refugee may travel to the United States for resettlement, and the federal government coordinates with state agencies and charitable organizations to assist with resettlement. The refugee must apply for Legal Permanent Resident status within one year of arriving in the United States.

This is "the most stringent security process for anyone entering the United States," according to the State Department. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served under President George W. Bush, said this week that "what the United States has done is to be open to people who are fleeing tyranny, who are fleeing danger, but we have done it in a very careful way that has worked for us." According to the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, "the process for refugees is the most extensive security screening we have for visitors. It's easier to come in as a tourist, a student, a businessman."

Pennsylvania has a rich history of opening its doors to those facing persecution and danger. William Penn founded our commonwealth on the principle of religious freedom, seeking to allow those in Europe to escape persecution. Since Oct. 1, 2015, 275 refugees have settled in Pennsylvania from around the globe. From October 2014 to September 2015, Pennsylvania had 3,056 total refugees resettle from throughout the world. In the two years prior to that, more than 5,000 global refugees resettled in Pennsylvania. These were families from across the globe, and only a small percentage came from Syria.

During past conflicts, the United States has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees who were fleeing violence and persecution. Jewish refugees came to Pennsylvania from Germany and other European countries to escape the Nazi occupation and religious persecution. Following the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford resettled 130,000 Vietnamese refugees. As millions in Syria face violence, persecution, and death, we should continue to help those who we can while taking care to protect our commonwealth and our country, just as we have done for hundreds of years. To reject only Syrian refugees could embolden the message of those who seek to inspire violence by saying that we, as Americans, do not have compassion or care for specific groups of people in the world facing religious persecution.

My top priority is the protection of the commonwealth and the safety of our citizens. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Office of Homeland Security, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and Pennsylvania State Police continue to take extensive steps to prepare for emergencies and crises. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency continually facilitates exercises to prepare for emergencies and stands ready to assist local emergency management agencies in times of need. The Office of Homeland Security routinely trains those in the public and private sector to prevent and prepare for emergency situations.

The Pennsylvania State Police are constantly working with local law enforcement and federal authorities to ensure the availability of intelligence, personnel, and equipment to protect critical infrastructure and aid in the security of public events held throughout the commonwealth. At my direction, commonwealth agencies will continue to focus their efforts on preventing and preparing for terrorist and other large-scale crises.

Pennsylvania will not seek to disrupt efforts to resettle refugees from humanitarian crises throughout the world, including Syria. To this end, I will work with state and national partners to ensure that the federal government takes every precaution to make sure refugees from Syria and elsewhere are properly screened prior to admittance to the United States. At the same time, I want to remain true to Pennsylvania's long and noble tradition of being a welcoming place.

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Comments: 5

  • Flash10053 img 2015-11-18 07:17

    Whether it is guns, religion, or government itself, Republicans lead only by fear.

    Republicans lack leadership.

    Ryan Aument is a weasel and a coward himself who does not provide that leadership.

    He, the republican candidates, and those governors who want to punish refugees further do not make America proud, and are a disgrace to our Christian heritage.

  • Flash10053 img 2015-11-18 07:18

    Whether it is guns, religion, or government itself, Republicans lead only by fear.

    Republicans lack leadership.

    Ryan Aument is a weasel and a coward himself who does not provide that leadership.

    He, the republican candidates, and those governors who want to punish refugees further do not make America proud, and are a disgrace to our Christian heritage.

  • Flash10053 img 2015-11-18 07:18

    Whether it is guns, religion, or government itself, Republicans lead only by fear.

    Republicans lack leadership.

    Ryan Aument is a weasel and a coward himself who does not provide that leadership.

    He, the republican candidates, and those governors who want to punish refugees further do not make America proud, and are a disgrace to our Christian heritage.

  • Flash10053 img 2015-11-18 07:23

    Republicans continually spread fear to obtain leadership.
    Instead of standing on leadership alone as a statesman.
    Whether it is guns, God, or government itself.
    Now their stance on Syrian refugees damages both America as the sanctuary of humanity, and Christianity as the religion of compassion.
    It is a time that we can not boast or be proud about being Americans or being a Christian.

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