Refugee groups respond to criticism as lawmakers ramp up calls for change

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The White House on Tuesday held a 90-minute conference call with Gov. Tom Wolf and 33 other governors concerning U.S. policy regarding Syrian refugees.

The administration briefed the group on the screening process and reinforced that the president hasn’t changed his mind about admitting those fleeing violence in the Middle East.

Throughout the day leading up to the call, lawmakers fired back at Wolf, calling his declaration dangerous.

State Sen. Rich Alloway (R-Franklin) wrote in an op-ed emailed to various news outlets, “The safety and security of our nation hinges on how we address this problem,” echoing calls from dozens of other state legislators to change course.

The governor’s office was flooded with calls Tuesday, too, from Pennsylvanians angry about his decision to welcome Syrian refugees when more than two dozen other governors have chosen otherwise.

“This, to me, is more of a distraction,” said Jill Family, a Widener University law professor who specializes in immigration.

She reiterated states don’t make the call over whether or not to accept refugees; that’s federal.

“If these states went beyond just posturing and actually did try to block refugees from being resettled into their states, I think we’d see litigation,” she said.

That could include equal opportunity lawsuits. Taxpayers would have to foot the bill for such legal action. Plus, she explained, once a refugee is in the United States legally, he or she is allowed to move freely.

“One state can’t stop someone like that from moving into another state,” she said.

Some suggest the state block funding, which is also federal, but refugee resettlement group leaders say it wouldn’t stop refugee resettlement, just the programs meant to help them once they get here.

“We teach them English, we find them employment and move them through the system,” said Pete Biasucci, assistant director of Catholic Charities at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg.

The diocese helped resettle more than 250 refugees in the Midstate during the last federal fiscal year.

Biasucci remembered what Pope Francis told Congress during his visit to the U.S. in September: the refugee migration is a crisis, and everyone should do what they can to help.

“And that doesn’t mean we ignore our borders or ignore our rights as a sovereign nation,” he said, “but to do what we can. And he invoked the golden rule at that time, you may recall.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said the screening process for the entire refugee program isn’t good enough.

“We should not admit a single terrorist into this country,” he told reporters Tuesday morning, “and until we can be confident that we’re not doing that, we need to suspend the program.”

He’s not the first to suggest that. U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-11th District) co-sponsored a bill Monday to halt the resettlement program until Congress evaluates security risks and financial impact.

“It’s not that they wanted to come to the U.S. They would rather have stayed in the Middle East, but it’s dangerous,” Sheila Mastropiedro, director of the Church World Service Lancaster office, said. “They’re likely to lose their lives.”

CWS is the most prolific refugee resettlement group in the Midstate, responsible for more than two-thirds of the nearly 1,000 refugees who made their home in the area in the last fiscal year.

“I mean, it happens every day in their country, what happened in Paris,” she said.

The evaluation and resettling process takes years, she said, and a refugee isn’t allowed into the country until screening procedures are complete.

“The people who come through the refugee program, the refugees who come through here, the way they come and how they’re screened is the most rigorous screening of anyone who comes to the U.S.,” she said.

Many in the state and across the country worry it’s not rigorous enough.

In an open letter sent to Wolf Tuesday, Republican legislators from Lancaster County expressed as much, with Rep. Steven Mentzer writing, “Even one failure could result in a catastrophic situation.”

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