Syrian Refugees Georgia

Ebtisam, center, a Syrian refugee who would only give her first name to protect her identity, is taught english by Alisa Glover, right, and Kyle Collins, at her home in Marietta, Ga. After Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal directed state agencies on Nov. 16 to "halt any involvement" in the acceptance of Syrian refugees, Ebtisam and her family were unable to collect federally-funded benefits since arriving in the country Nov. 30. Deal rescinded an executive order trying to stop resettlement of Syrian refugees on Monday, five days after Attorney General Sam Olens issued an official opinion that he didn't have that authority. The family's applications for food stamps and Medicaid benefits were approved Monday.

In retrospect, 2015 could be termed the Year of the Migrant, with as many as one million refugees and migrants fleeing warzones for Europe.

Meanwhile, on America’s southern border, a growing number of families and unaccompanied minors (many escaping violence in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala) have posed a quandary for the Obama administration, with recent moves to deport some of the entrants spurring outrage among immigration advocates.

Though decisions about which migrants to welcome and which to bar are made at the federal level, that hasn’t stopped immigration policy from being hotly debated, both nationally and locally. With the situation in the Middle East showing no signs of change for the better, European governments grappling with the sheer magnitude of the refugee crisis, and a November election looming here, it is more than likely that, while their effect may be more symbolic than practical, Pennsylvania politicians and local citizens will continue to stake out fiercely defended positions which, perhaps not surprisingly, often seem to align with party loyalties.

Faith-based groups aid refugees

Faith-based organizations, including Jewish, Catholic and Protestant groups and congregations, have provided material support for immigrant and refugee communities, says Sundrop Carter, executive director at the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. (That includes Church World Service, an ecumenical agency affiliated with the National Council of Churches. Its Lancaster office helps local immigrants and refugees settle in central Pennsylvania)

“With the new federal program that was announced, focused on deporting Central American families fleeing violence, we’ll be focused on educating immigrant families about their rights, and helping families targeted by (Immigration and Customs Enforce),” Carter says. She noted that the group is lobbying for “tuition equity” for all Pennsylvania high school graduates regardless of their immigration status — known as the PA Dream Act — as well as a bill that would allow immigrants to apply for Pennsylvania driver’s licenses whether they are documented or not.

The advocacy organization also is pressing for changes at the Berks County Family Residential Center, a holding facility for asylum-seekers that Carter and others have charged is operating contrary to Pennsylvania law. (Its contract is currently under review by the state Department of Human Services to make sure it isn’t incarcerating families with children, she says).

Refugees from places like Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East are subject to screening protocols that may take as long as two years, says Carter, who notes that last year Pennsylvania accepted a total of 3,000 refugees from all over the world.

“Part of the problem is how the issue has been reframed. It’s not based on fact” says Carter, who estimates there are a few hundred Syrian migrant families living in the state.

Toomey: Ban Syrians until screening is improved

In the wake of the terrorist killings in Paris, however, some legislators have asked that the United States review its current policy.

“I believe that we should immediately suspend the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States until we have full confidence that our screening and background check protocols are sufficient,” says U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican. “While most refugees are innocent people in dire situations, the safety of the American people must come first, and serious questions have been raised about our protocols for Syrian refugees.

Contacted for comment, Gov.Tom Wolf’s office referred to a letter he sent state legislators in November. Reminding them that states don’t have the authority to bar refugees green-lighted by the federal government, Wolf said that individuals looking to resettle in the U.S. “are subject to the highest level of security checks.”

While he understands that some Americans are concerned how thoroughly Syrian refugees are screened, Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Casey says the process is “rigorous.”

Casey: Process is 'rigorous'

“The process also includes an additional layer of enhanced classified screening measures for those refugees from Syria,” Casey says. “The U.S. government also prioritizes admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, particularly female-headed households, children, survivors of torture and individuals with severe medical conditions.

“However,” he adds, “if our intelligence and homeland security professionals determine there’s a way to strengthen the existing process, then I will advocate for those appropriate steps to be taken.”

Should experts determine that the process should be beefed up, he’ll back them up, he adds.

At the same time, he says, “offering asylum for refugees, whatever conflict they are fleeing, is consistent with American values and history. Turning refugees away on the basis of religion or ethnicity is inconsistent with our principles as a nation.”

Reminding Pennsylvanians of their history of welcoming those fleeing persecution and seeking freedom to practice their own faith, dating back to the days of William Penn, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray says it’s “intolerable to me that we should just forget.”

Gray notes that Lancaster itself (with its own Anabaptist roots) is home to a diverse group of immigrants from around the world.

“You have to be very careful if you send people back to a situation where their lives are threatened. That said, we do have laws and rules as to who can get into this country.

 Gray says. “On the other hand, before you deport people I’d want to be sure that they weren’t legitimate refugees escaping violence.’

Asked whether his forthright comments on welcoming refugees had evoked opposition, Gray says no.

“We have a great tradition of religious freedom and taking in people escaping religious persecution,” he says. “It’s the foundation upon which Lancaster was founded and I’m not ready to give that up. I’m proud of it.”

 Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is a freelance writer and nonparochial Episcopalian priest.

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