Pence order puts Indiana at center of Syrian refugee issue

Mike Pence (WISH Photo)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Indiana could be shaping up as a testing ground for how states deal with Syrian refugees, after Gov. Mike Pence directed state agencies this month to suspend resettlement efforts because of security concerns.

Pence put Indiana at the forefront of the issue when his order, in the aftermath of the deadly Paris attacks, led one private agency to divert a family to Connecticut a day before it was to arrive in Indiana. Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana has asked a federal judge to put a temporary hold on Pence’s directive, saying it violates the Constitution.

A nonprofit group that helps resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana says it will defy Pence and continue to bring in refugee families when scheduled. The group says more than a dozen refugees already are destined for Indiana, and another agency said it expects the next family to arrive in December.

Here are some things to know about the refugee issue in Indiana:

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PENCE’S ORDER

Pence issued a directive Nov. 16 instructing state agencies to suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in Indiana. He said he was doing it until the federal government could assure states that proper security measures have been met.

In an opinion piece offered to media throughout Indiana, Pence noted that FBI Director James Comey told Congress there were risks associated with Syrian refugees because of challenges in conducting background checks. Pence highlighted the fact that a passport found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers had been registered along the route asylum seekers from Syria are taking through Europe. It’s not clear how the passport ended up near the attacker.

The ACLU’s lawsuit accuses Pence of violating the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. It argues that Indiana cannot accept refugees to Indiana from other countries but not from Syria.

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FEDERAL ASSURANCES

The Obama administration sent a letter to governors assuring them that refugees who come to the United States through the resettlement program undergo a “rigorous security vetting process,” particularly if they are fleeing from Syria. The administration said the vetting process is thorough and can take nearly three years.

Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a conference call with reporters on Monday that the vetting process is constantly being strengthened.

While Pence wrote that the person with the passport found in Paris had “exploited the European Union’s refugee system to gain entrance to France,” Mayorkas countered that the owner of the passport had “self-proclaimed refugee status,” which is different than going through the refugee screening process into the United States.

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PLANS TO DEFY

Five days after the Paris attacks, a Syrian couple set to arrive in Indianapolis with their 5-year-old son was diverted to Connecticut. Carleen Miller, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, said she needed to make a quick decision and didn’t want to force the family into “any more scrutiny or drama.” The family had fled Syria in 2011.

But Miller said the next time her nonprofit is sent a family of Syrian refugees, they will be resettled in Indiana, despite Pence’s order.

“Our stance right now is, it’s business as usual. We’re going to resettle refugees. That’s our job,” Miller said.

Miller said her organization is aware of 19 more refugees coming, but not received arrival dates. She said she usually is notified several weeks beforehand.

The next scheduled arrival is a family of four, including children ages 2 and 1. They are scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis Dec. 10 and be placed by Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

Heidi Smith, the group’s director of refugee services, said the organization was waiting for guidance from the State Department and national organizations before deciding what to do.

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THE COSTS

Miller said her agency doesn’t believe Indiana has the right to keep Syrian refugees out. But if Pence stands by his order, resettlement agencies may have to depend on private funding to make up for the federal dollars the state administers to help refugees.

She said she couldn’t estimate how much because there are too many variables, but said it would be thousands of dollars. She said that would include money for housing, food stamps, refugee Medicaid, which they receive for eight months, and other cash assistance for things like utilities and laundry.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which oversees the state’s resettlement programs, did not respond to a request for comment on the funding issue.

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