TWIN FALLS • Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter called on the president Monday to halt refugee resettlement until the vetting process and state concerns are addressed.
At least 22 other governors have taken similar steps in response to Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, some through executive order to block Syrians specifically. Otter stopped short of such a move and instead urged Congress to allow states to opt-out of the federal refugee placement program.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, Otter said he understands immigration and refugee policy is set at the federal level, but he plans to use whatever legal means are open to him to protect the people of Idaho.
“It makes no sense under the best of circumstances for the United States to allow people into our country who have the avowed desire to harm our communities, our institutions and our people,” Otter said in a statement accompanying his letter.
“The savage and senseless ISIS-driven attacks in Paris illustrate the essential inhumanity of terrorism and make it clearer than ever that we must make protecting our homeland from this threat our primary focus.”
Idaho’s entire congressional delegation released a joint statement Monday evening supporting Otter’s call to suspend the program.
“There are obviously serious concerns with the refugee screening process as it currently stands; and in light of recent attacks in Paris, we cannot move forward with accepting Syrian refugees,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. “We have to focus our resources on protecting Americans and the homeland, and to do that we must first identify a path forward that will ensure verification that those entering our country will do no harm.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who is on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees, said he has been briefed on the vetting process and has “serious reservations” about its effectiveness.
“Although the exact method by which the government vets these people is classified, I can tell you that after my review I lack confidence in the ability of the process to keep us safe,” Risch said. “In addition, the individual states and communities should have a say in this process.”
All but one of the governors who have either called on the federal government to halt refugee resettlement or said specifically that they would not accept more Syrian refugees in their states are Republicans.
But the head of the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigration says governors cannot legally block refugees under the Refugee Act of 1980.
Otter wrote in his letter that the Obama administration and Congress should work with states and with governors to review the process and how states are affected.
“Frustration with the federal immigration and refugee programs runs high in Idaho,” Otter writes to Obama. “Your attention and follow-through are essential if we are to protect Americans. It is my desire, and should be your goal, to reassure the people of Idaho that their views are respected and that consideration is given to enabling states to opt out of the refugee resettlement program.”
Current plans call for the U.S. to take in 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next year. Refugee resettlement programs have been a focus of controversy around the world this year as the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war has worsened, with many citing fears that Islamic extremists could be among the refugees, and there is a movement in Twin Falls to shut down the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center. Calls to end refugee resettlement, at least until the vetting process can be reviewed, have intensified greatly since ISIS attacks killed more than 100 people in Paris on Friday, with evidence that one of the attackers got into Europe posing as a refugee.
Zeze Rwasama, the director of CSI’s Refugee Center, hadn’t heard about Otter’s letter when asked about it Monday afternoon.
“It doesn’t worry me at all,” Rwasama said. “All I’m doing is helping the refugees that are given to my site. This is an immigration issue, its federal. It’s not at a state level.”
Rwasama said he is interested to see how those at the federal level will respond to the governors. Numerous congressional Republicans and presidential candidates voiced opposition to continued refugee resettlement on Monday. President Barack Obama, though, said it would be “a betrayal of our values” not to take in Syrian refugees, and also denounced calls to favor Christian refugees over Muslims.
Rwasama said the center hasn’t gotten any negative comments or complaints, that he knows of, since Friday’s attacks.
“I’m not involved in approving refugees that come to Twin Falls,” Rwasama said. “We are going to provide to people who are sent to us.”
The College of Southern Idaho’s board of trustees didn’t have a public comment period during its Monday meeting. But board chairman Karl Kleinkopf said he’s aware of what’s happening nationally and internationally and with the action of governors across the U.S. calling for a halt to refugee resettlement. He said the board might take action in the future.
State Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said he supports Otter’s call for a moratorium and urged the college to work with the governor.
“Prudence and caution compel this reasonable step at this time in light of the incidents in Europe and the clear indications that one or more of the Paris terrorists came through the refugee resettlement program,” he said. “I think reasonable Idahoans would agree that the changing circumstances of Mideast terrorism warrant more vetting of proposed refugees than the Obama administration admits they can provide.”
Jan Reeves, the director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, said he was disappointed by Otter’s statement.
“The refugees that are coming here to the United States and in Idaho are … fleeing the kind of terror that we saw happening in Paris,” Reeves said. “That’s what refugees live with every day.”
While the state should keep citizens safe, Reeves said, it also should not harm refugees or lump them all together.
“Certainly (Otter) wants to protect and reassure the people of Idaho that they will not be put in harm’s way,” Reeves said. “But I believe that this request is misguided.”
As of Sept. 30, 35 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the Boise area over the past year, Reeves said — 20 children plus their parents. No Syrians have been resettled in the Twin Falls area through the CSI program in the past year.
There is “a legal answer and a practical answer” as to what power states have over refugee resettlement, said Bill Smith, the head of the International Studies program at the University of Idaho. While states can’t just end the program, it has taken a lot of support from state and local governments and from groups such as school districts, public health districts and private employers to make Idaho’s refugee resettlement programs a success.
“To really make it work, you have to have a lot of people contributing to the effort,” he said.
Refugees who come into the United States are chosen from among those who are living in refugee camps. They then go through extensive interviews and health checks, Smith said. They’re not people who walked through Europe unvetted, which may have been the case with one of the Paris attackers. This would make it much harder for ISIS to embed someone, Smith said.
“I think some of the reaction now is misunderstanding processes,” he said.
Refugees to the United States coming from Syria are people who are fleeing terrorism and are “as vulnerable folks as we get,” Smith said. ISIS has threatened to embed terrorists among the refugees, and the challenge for the government, Smith said, is to assess how much of ISIS’s threats are fear mongering and how much is credible.
The U.S., and the Western world in general, being helpful and supportive of refugees would undermine ISIS’s message, he said.
“What you’re saying is, the people fleeing ISIS shouldn’t be helped because … ISIS might be embedding people.”