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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri lawmakers question vetting of Syrian refugees

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri lawmakers are questioning state agencies and charities that have any interaction with refugees and immigrants who settle in the Show-Me State.

Monday's joint meeting of the House Budget Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee is the first in a series called by Republican legislative leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.

They scheduled the hearings after Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said the federal government should "implement the strongest possible safeguards," but his statement made no mention of whether he supported or opposed admitting Syrian refugees into Missouri.

"Missouri taxpayers want to know what resources are being used to bring refugees to the state of Missouri, what services are they being provided, how are they being paid for, what threat, if any, exists, and what public funds are being used to make sure that we minimize any potential risk to Missourians," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, co-chair of the joint meeting.

Social Services Director Brian Kincade explained how his agency handles any refugees who settle in Missouri.

"We would ask for their documentation," Kincade testified. "If they are a refugee, if they were born in another country and have come in through this process, they will have papers issued by the federal government, and if they were to come in and apply for Medicaid, for example, that's what we would need."

Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, expressed concern that Missouri is relying solely on the federal government to check the backgrounds of any refugees entering Missouri. 

Parson asked Kincade whether the state had any assurance "other than what the federal government tells you" that a person has had a criminal background check.

Kincade said, "We rely on those documents being issued only if those screenings have been done in the past."

"I guess my point is," Parson said, "we have no law enforcement agencies at all in the state of Missouri checking these people out, other than what the federal government tells us."

International Institute of St. Louis CEO Anna Crosslin testified, telling the committee that the federal government's vetting process is very strict and sufficient for spotting terrorists trying to enter the country.

"We are talking (about) people that it's taking 18 to 24 months to vet through the process," Crosslin said.  "It includes interviews by the United Nations to assess that they have a well-founded fear of persecution, that they meet all the criteria of this lengthy process, and that they clear the process, including the final airport interview, which is lengthy, at one of five U.S. destination airports, (which) they must clear in order to be admitted into the U.S."

Schaefer, however, was not impressed.

"When we talk about floods of other refugees who are fleeing some horrific circumstances, just as are Syrians, you're not bringing in a population that is not necessarily going to assimilate as easily, and one that potentially comes from a region that has been defined as a terrorist region who are trying to get members in(to) the United States," he said to Crosslin.

At least two joint committee members are seeking higher office; Schaefer is running for attorney general and Parson is running for lieutenant governor.

Some Democrats on the joint committee warned that the hearing should not be used to play up fears of terrorists trying to sneak into the country.

"The men, women and children who are trying to flee from the oppression and attacks (in their home country), those are not the ones we need to fear," said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.  "We're going down a slippery slope; do we want to be able to protect our homeland?  Yes, but do we want to deny access to the most vulnerable?"

Both Crosslin and Kincade said 29 Syrian refugees are currently in Missouri.

Meanwhile, House Democrats unveiled their plan for how Missouri should handle any incoming refugees.  It includes:

  • Opposing any efforts to set up internment camps to house Syrian refugees and any efforts to create a "government-sponsored religious database"
  • Provide $6.5 million to the Missouri State Highway Patrol to boost information and intelligence capabilities, verify federal screenings of refugees and assess the vulnerability of Missouri's physical and digital infrastructures
  • Increase cyber security funding and resources
  • Provide resources to local governments to boost their cyber security

The likelihood of any of these proposals becoming law depends on whether Republican lawmakers adopt them as well, which at this early stage appears unlikely.
More hearings are expected to be held before the start of the 2016 legislative session.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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