Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Suddenly, refugees are in spotlight

Syrian refugees were the topic of emotional debate in North Carolina and other states last week. Political figures, from the governor down to lower-office holders, called for putting the brakes on Syrian resettlement here until citizens can be assured that terrorists won’t slip in among them.

The issue created a split among Democrats, with gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Roy Cooper siding with Gov. Pat McCrory for a pause in the program. It was met with a liberal backlash against Cooper, who was accused from the left of fanning unfounded fears.

By week’s end, it was clear that it is easier for a would-be terrorist to gain entry into the U.S. on a visa waiver than by posing as a refugee. That’s because an intensive screening process is already in place that can take two years to complete. A visa waiver allows some Europeans to visit the U.S. with only a passport, and without first applying for a visa. Congressional efforts to limit those waivers appear to be gaining momentum.

Stepping back, here’s a look at the refugee scene in North Carolina:

Syrians account for 59 of the approximately 5,000 refugees who arrived this year in North Carolina (through Oct. 31).

By far, most refugees come from Burma: 1,569. Following that are 591 from Iraq, 520 from Bhutan, 505 from Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 431 from Cuba.

No more than 270 additional Syrian refugees are expected to be resettled in North Carolina.

Guilford County has had the highest number of all refugees with 624, followed by Mecklenburg County with 593 and Wake County with 448.

The numbers come from the State Refugee Office, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The state runs federally funded programs for the refugees, providing cash and medical assistance for up to eight months, helping them find jobs and learn English. It costs about $423,000 a month.

Before people who are fleeing a civil war, such as in Syria, or some other trauma can officially receive refugee status, there is screening by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Governors in half the states expressed skepticism about that process after the Paris terrorist attacks this month.

Frank Perry, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety, on Wednesday told a legislative committee it’s not a reassuring relationship.

“The collaboration that we’re after simply doesn’t exist” with the federal government, said Perry, a former FBI agent. “We’ve received nothing from Homeland Security, nothing from the FBI.”

On Friday, Gov. Pat McCrory and 26 other governors sent a letter to the president emphasizing their concerns, noting that FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress last month that some “people of serious concern” had not been detected in the screening of Iraq refugees, including two arrested on terrorism-related charges.

Comey said screenings have improved but that it will be harder to detect terrorists among Syrian refugees.

“In the wake of this recent tragedy, and until we can ensure the citizens of our states that an exhaustive review of all security measures has been completed and the necessary changes have been implemented we respectfully request that you suspend all plans to resettle additional Syrian refugees,” the governors wrote.

The states cannot refuse to accept the federal government’s resettled refugees, so that’s why state officials are asking.

The Obama administration has planned to bring at least 10,000 Syrians into the United States this year.

Federal officials have said the entry screenings are robust. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must register, interview, collect biological data and gather other background information. At least 18,000 have been cleared and are awaiting U.S. review, according to Human Rights First.

The United States then screens for health, biometric checks, backgrounds, and interviews by Homeland Security officers. Multiple federal agencies are involved. They are checked against an international watch list.

According to Human Rights First, the overwhelming majority of refugees are women and children.

Refugee resettlement organizations mobilized all week to counter the fears, holding daily national phone-in news conferences and other efforts to remind people the refugees are fleeing violence. On Friday, a Syrian-American volunteer working in North Carolina joined the press call.

“We all need to take a moment and stand in the shoes of the refugee,” Zane Kuseybi said. “… Let us stand in the shoes of those who may have only the remnants of their family around them with all other semblance of the past life gone. Let us remember that they are as we, human, with the same feelings of love, fear, failure and insignificance. Let us remember, if just for a moment, the thought of there being nothing known and no place familiar. Just a moment to stand in their shoes before we hurry back to our more important lives.”

Staff writer Craig Jarvis

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