Kansas Refuses to Help Refugees Settling in the State

by | April 27, 2016

By Edward M. Eveld

Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday he is withdrawing Kansas from the federal government's refugee relocation program because of security concerns.

Despite the state's withdrawal, refugees will continue to be resettled in Kansas, federal officials said.

Brownback had already issued executive orders barring state agencies from assisting in the resettlement of refugees from Syria and other countries that posed a safety risk. The decision announced Tuesday removes the state from the program completely.

But federal officials told Brownback that if the state withdrew, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement would work directly with local refugee resettlement organizations and refugees would continue to come to the state.

"If the state were to cease participating in the refugee resettlement program, it would have no effect on the placement of refugees by the State Department in Kansas, or the ORR-funded benefits they can receive," wrote Mark Greenberg with the federal Administration for Children and Families in an April 13 letter to Brownback.

Eileen Hawley, Brownback's spokeswoman, said the governor had made numerous attempts since November to work with the federal government on security concerns but could not get adequate assurances about its refugee vetting process.

"The problem is there are gaps in information," she said.

States are allowed by law to withdraw from the refugee resettlement program, and Kansas is the first to withdraw for security reasons, Hawley said. Some states don't participate in the program, she said.

"The governor has taken the action he can to protect the security of the state," Hawley said. "It was clear we were not going to get the assurances we need to participate in the program."

Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said Brownback's decision only takes the state out of the process.

"It's very sad and very unfortunate that the governor is allowing fear to get in the way of hospitality and traditional Kansas values," he said.

Kubic said he didn't understand Brownback's concern because refugees to the United States undergo extensive security screenings. The governor's decision sends a message that the state has no interest in aiding people who face political and religious persecution, Kubic said.

Earlier this year, Brownback directed state agencies to use the U.S. State Department's official list of state sponsors of terrorism to determine whether a refugee should be deemed a security risk, specifically Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Brownback held meetings on April 19 with representatives of the State Department, Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center about his security concerns.

"We have been reasonable and incredibly patient in attempting to work with the federal government on this issue," Brownback said in a statement.

"As governor, I must have confidence that the refugee relocation program, and particularly the vetting process, is sufficient to protect our citizens," he said. "If I have to choose between the safety and security of Kansans and the relocation of refugees, I will take action to protect Kansans."

Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said the state receives about $2.2 million a year in federal funds to assist refugees and refugee resettlement agencies. The state works with three resettlement agencies, including Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. The state will hold discussions with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to phase out the state's involvement, she said.

Since October, 354 refugees from all countries have been resettled in Kansas, she said, and 13 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the Wichita or Kansas City areas of the state since January 2015.

Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Brownback's announcement was intended for political purposes at a time when the state is facing a $290 million budget shortfall.

"I think this is all about distraction," Ward said. "Withdrawing from the federal program does not actually stop refugees from being resettled in the state."

(c)2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)