New Bills in MI Legislature Add to Narrative of Refugee Exclusion

A Syrian migrant carries a child as she walks along a railway track after crossing into Hungary from the border with Serbia, 29 Aug 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
A Syrian migrant carries a child as she walks along a railway track after crossing into Hungary from the border with Serbia, 29 Aug 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Bernadett Szabo

Media coverage in the past week has been a cascade of reactions to the horrific Islamic State (IS) attacks in Paris. The acts of terror, which left 130 dead (per NPR), were unforgivable, as is the general religious fanaticism that serves as a crucible for such unspeakable acts as the ongoing civil war in Syria, the university attacks in Kenya, and mostly recently, the hostage crisis in Mali, among many others.

The genesis of the Islamic State is nuanced, as is its expansive, hateful ideology, but one thing is certain: its very survival, as has been artfully outlined by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and others, is dependent upon the fragmenting, isolating, divisive reactions to those who fear them. When these reactions happen at a policymaking level, where victims are villainized, doors are shut, and help is withdrawn, the Islamic State has achieved its desired effect.

Governor Snyder in 2011. Photo courtesy of Michigan Municipal League.
Governor Snyder in 2011. Photo courtesy of Michigan Municipal League.

Enter Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and thirty other governors, all of whom have declared Syrian refugees unwelcome in their states by calling for “reviews” of the already-vetted screening processes currently in use. But it’s not just state-level executive branches getting involved in constructing an unwelcome environment for refugees; in Michigan, state legislators are already drafting legislation that, like Governor Snyder’s decree, holds no water legally in excluding refugees.

Jim Runestad, a Republican out of White Lake, Michigan, says he is drafting two bills in the State House related to refugee resettlement. The first seeks to prohibit the expenditure of state funds to assist the federal Refugee Resettlement Program except in cases in which the state legislature and relevant county governments approve the resettlement. In an interesting departure from reality, Runestad noted, “Since states are sovereign and cannot be forced to comply with this voluntary program, I think a full review of the state’s role in the resettlement program is the smart thing to do.” As we already know, the matter of refugees and immigration in general is a federal law issue. States cannot legally bar refugees from entering, nor can they engage in foreign policymaking by specifying that refugees from certain countries of origin are permitted, while others are not.

Runestad’s second bill would place a complete ban on the resettlement of refugees from failed states. Runestad justified this measure, alleging, “We do not have access to government databases from failed states, so we don’t have access to the backgrounds of those seeking to relocate in Michigan.” However, White House officials outright reject the claim that too little data exists on Syrian refugees, saying, “There is intelligence on refugee populations, including Syrian refugees…Iraqis and Syrians tend to be a very, very heavily documented population. And members of families tend to have passports and family registries and military books, and they have a lot of information in most instances.”

Finally, and perhaps most ironically, such proclamations about stymying resettlement in the wake of the Paris attacks is nothing short of declaring support for what is already common practice for refugee resettlement. According to Vox:  “The sad truth is that the US’s insistence on screening Syrian refugees carefully, and its almost paranoid aversion to admitting anyone whose family might have had any form of contact with any extremist group at any point, created a bottleneck that for years prevented nearly any Syrian refugee from coming to the US. The federal government has just, in 2015, started devoting enough resources to screening refugees who’ve fled Syria to start allowing them to come into the country in any numbers at all.”  So while outright exclusion satisfies our most banal, fearful inclinations, the reality is, we’re hardly letting any Syrians in anyway.

A US Coast Guard patrol boat around Liberty Island in New York. Photo courtesy of Cristo Vlahos.
A US Coast Guard patrol boat around Liberty Island in New York. Photo courtesy of Cristo Vlahos.

Earlier this week, the House voted to set impossibly high hurdles meant to halt acceptance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, or, as they are otherwise known, those that need help most urgently. These include new FBI background checks, and personal reviews from the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the FBI, and the Department Homeland Security Secretary of each and every individual application before admission. And while this transparently knee-jerk policy reaction to the attacks in Paris is exclusionary and has been condemned by President Obama and other immigrant advocates and human rights groups, it does have one thing going for it – it is actually in the jurisdiction of the U.S. House of Representatives to make such a move, as is not the case for Mr. Runestad and the State House.

So why have state lawmakers who knowingly are not positioned to challenge federal law taking such stands? This brings us to the ugliest thing about the policy positions and unwelcoming statements from these elected officials – they don’t even matter. Statements of this kind from elected leaders about policy moves outside of their realm of influence mean to foster a hostile environment for refugees. They accomplish nothing except to lend legitimacy to xenophobia, and make the direct victims of terrorism feel unwelcome and unsafe in a country whose very sum and substance is supposed to be a haven for those fleeing persecution.

While the resettlement issue remains polarizing in civil society, unlike many of our elected officials, there are advocates who still work on behalf of refugees and attempt to create safe and welcoming communities in response to the hostility witnessed on a policy level. A petition calling on Governor Snyder to restore the Syrian refugee program in Michigan has generated 5,253 signatures as of 4:30 pm on Friday. Religious organizations are working tirelessly as well – St. Vincent Catholic Charities in mid-Michigan still wants to resettle at least 100 Syrian refugees in the area. And finally, in Pontiac, where plans for the construction of housing developments for Syrian refugees and a community center are in the works, supporters of the project are not folding under pressure from county official L. Brooks Patterson, who condemned the continuation of the project in inflammatory and politicized terms. In response, the Oakland county treasurer affirmed, “…Oakland County is made up of many thousands of Americans born in other countries, including many where terrible things happened, and that they are contributing greatly to Oakland County’s prosperity and security every day.”

Paris was attacked last week in an appalling display of the boundless capacity of human hatred and mercilessness and the ghastly consequences of religious extremism and zealotry. As prominent leaders both at home, and in the international community, American lawmakers were handed an opportunity to react with compassion for the victims and with condemnation for the attackers. Instead, our elected officials are painting all with a broad brush, and reacting only with the latter.

UPDATE (April 8, 2016): Rep. Runestad has officially introduced House Bills 5528-5529, meant to require more stringent reporting by resettlement agencies to the state and include specifics on the policies outlined above. Runestad’s office argues that the pair of bills provide “an outline for communication between state departments and local governments in order to maximize placement success and minimize security risks,” but refugee resettlement officials and immigrant advocates take issue with the proposals. The managing attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center says that not only are many of the provisions outlined in the bill already being done, but the bills do damage in contributing to the culture of suspicion of Muslim and Syrian refugees, and they “suggest that refugee resettlement may have a negative impact on our state.” The bills have been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Ethics. 

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