Congressional delegation says no to Syrian refugees

Photo: Liz Ruskin
Photo: Liz Ruskin

Alaska’s congressman and U.S. senators are among the chorus of political leaders calling on President Obama to suspend his  plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees.  Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she wants a moratorium, a pause to give Congress and the public a chance to evaluate the vetting process.

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The White House says no refugees are admitted until they “undergo the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any category of traveler to the United States.”

Murkowski says she knows screening a refugee family can take up to two years, but she isn’t clear on what it entails.

“And so until I know, I’m saying let’s put a stop on this right here, right now until we can ascertain what the process is in place,” she said, outside the Senate chamber this evening.

Murkowski says the United States has history of offering safety to refugees, and she doesn’t want that generosity to disappear. But the senator says the phones in her office have been ringing off the hook with Alaskans concerned that if the U.S. accepts Syrians, a terrorist might be hiding among the innocent.

“I think that’s fair, because as generous and hospitable as we want to be for others, we also want to be able to ensure the safety of the families here at home,” she said.

Hundreds also weighed in on her Facebook page. Many were adamantly anti-refugee, showing no hint of hospitality. Murkowski says she understands that reaction too, after watching the horrible events in Paris on Friday.

“I think there is that very, very visceral response that we have, saying ‘this should not be allowed.’”

Murkowski said she knows of no plan to settle Syrian refugees in Alaska. The state was not a destination for the 2,000 refugees that have been admitted to the U.S. since 2012.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a Facebook post that the government needs a good system to verify identities of asylum seeker before the U.S. can accept any Syrian refugees.

“We are a compassionate people, but we cannot afford to put our national security at risk,” he wrote.

Likewise, Congressman Don Young says the Syrian resettlement program should be halted until its safety can be assured.

Catholic Social Services runs Alaska’s refugee resettlement program. Executive Director Lisa Aquino says there are no plans to bring Syrian refugees to Alaska. Aquino says she understands people are afraid but she hopes Alaska will continue to be a welcoming place for refugees.

“I know that there’s some people talking from a place of fear right now and I understand that as well but we want to hear everyone’s comments, we are part of this community and we want to hear from everyone but what I see is so much support for fellow people here in Anchorage.”

Aquino says 125 refugees are expected to be resettled in Anchorage this year, many from countries like Somalia and the Congo.

President Obama, in a speech in Turkey, said the refugees are seeking security from terrorism. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” he said.

Governors around the country are trying to exclude Syrian refugees, citing security concerns. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is not among them. He participated in a call with White House and FBI officials Tuesday and says he’ll focus on making sure the screening process he was briefed on “remains the most stringent refugee vetting process in the world.”

“My highest concern is the safety of all Alaskans, and I appreciate the work being done by Catholic Social Services to help refugees settle in our state, and become valuable members of our community,” Walker said in a prepared statement.