By Daniela Altimari
The latest chapter of the national dispute over the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. took place Wednesday, with Connecticut's Democratic governor welcoming a married couple from Homs, Syria, and their 5-year-old son, who were turned away this week by the Republican governor of Indiana.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, speaking later at city hall in New Haven, forcefully defended Syrians seeking political asylum in the U.S. "We have an obligation to the other nations of the world to do our part," he said during a brief news conference. "It is the right thing, the humane thing to do. Quite frankly, if you believe in God, it's the morally correct thing to do."
Last week's terrorist attacks in Paris prompted U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to call for a "pause" in the refugee program. "Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion," Ryan said Tuesday. The White House has said it will not support such a measure.
And at least 30 governors have called for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees until security concerns can be addressed. Most immigration experts say the move is largely symbolic: Governors do not have the authority to bar refugees that have been vetted by federal officials.
The case of the Syrian family headed for Indiana tested that policy. The family, whose name was not released to protect their privacy, had been slated to settle in the Indianapolis area. But on Tuesday, when state officials stopped the placement, the family was redirected to New Haven where Malloy met with them privately.
In the news conference, Malloy, who is incoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, talked about America's history as a nation of immigrants, and touched upon his personal history as the descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. a century ago.
"I told them that people in the United States are generous and good people, that sometimes things happen elsewhere that cause people to forget about their generosity and native warmth ... but that will return ... because we are a country that has always extended itself to other people."
They chatted through an interpreter, although the family spoke a smattering of English. The governor was charmed by the boy: "The little guy shook hands with me," Malloy said. "He put his hand out, and he looked me straight in the eye, and I complimented his parents that the young man knew when you shake somebody's hand, you make eye contact. It was pretty impressive."
The family left Syria in 2011 as a civil war was tearing the country apart. They lived in Jordan for past four years before receiving permission to come to the U.S., Malloy said.
Their story is fairly typical. Refugees undergo a rigorous vetting process by the Department of Homeland Security. The wait between initial approval and entrance into the U.S. can be up to 18 months.
In most cases, refugees are placed near friends or relatives who are already in the U.S. But because there are relatively small numbers of Syrian refugees in the U.S. -- just 1,705 were admitted from January through October, up from 249 during all of 2014 -- most are assigned placements randomly.
Resettlement organizations, such as Catholic Charities and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a New Haven-based nonprofit, help refugees re-establish their lives. They rely on federal funds and donations to aid the newcomers.
Refugees approved for entry into the U.S. by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are eligible for federally funded medical assistance and cash assistance, among other services, according to David Dearborn, spokesman for the Department of Social Services, which administers the federal programs in Connecticut.
Religious organizations also help. First Congregational Church of Old Lyme has helped past waves of refugees with English tutoring and rent, said the Rev. Carleen Gerber. "We recognize that it is part of our faith tradition to offer hospitality, but it's also a civic virtue," she said.
During a public hearing at the state Capitol Wednesday, Rep. Arthur O'Neill of Southbury asked Malloy's budget director, Ben Barnes, if he was aware of any plans to place hundreds or thousands of refugees at the training school.
"No, I'm not aware of any such discussions," Barnes responded. "It's hard to imagine anyone considering that to be a reasonable alternative."
The hearing focused on the state's projected future budget deficits, but O'Neill, the longest-serving House Republican, said he wanted an on-the-record answer from Barnes.
Some Republican critics, in Connecticut and around the nation, say they want assurances that all security concerns have been addressed. "To my mind it doesn't make sense under the current circumstance to invite in a group of people we can't properly screen," said Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington.
Malloy said he has confidence in the vetting process. "We're bigger than that as a nation, we're better than that as a nation. And we should have more faith in the process that has been engaged in for decades in our country," he said. "It is an exhaustive process."
It is far more difficult for refugees to sneak into the U.S. than into Europe, Malloy said. "No one is taking a boat from ... Syria or Turkey to get to our shores," he said. "We control this refugee process to a higher extent than any other country."
Malloy also accused Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the other Republican governors of fomenting fear. "It's hysteria, it's lack of knowledge," Malloy said.
As DGA chairman, Malloy will assume the role of the party's chief attack dog, and over the past few days, he has appeared on several national TV news shows to discuss the refugee issue.
But Malloy's partisan beef with Pence dates to the spring, when Pence signed a law aimed at protecting business owners do not support same-sex marriage because of religious objections. "This is the same guy who signed a homophobic bill ... so I'm not surprised by anything the governor does," Malloy said.
Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd said Malloy's comments are "sad, unfortunate and simply not true."
(c)2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)