Crying Terrorism, Arizona Legislators Try to Encumber Refugee Resettlement

Unidentified women and men in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Somalia.
Unidentified women and men in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Somalia.
hikrcn / Shutterstock

Citing concern about terrorism, an Arizona House of Representatives committee passed two bills Wednesday attempting to encumber federal efforts to resettle refugees in Arizona.

The first, House Bill 2370, sponsored by Representative Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff), prohibits the state from using resources to enforce, administer, or cooperate with federal efforts to place refugees in Arizona unless the refugees have undergone a criminal and health background check. It also requires the federal government to “fully compensate” the state for the “ongoing costs” of placement.

The second, HB 2691, sponsored by House Speaker David Gowan, calls for an audit to determine how many refugees have been resettled in Arizona over the past three years and how much the state and federal government have spent caring for them.

Members of the Federalism and States’ Rights Committee, chaired by Representative Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa), voted 5-3 to move both bills forward to be debated in the House.

“I want the federal government to be held to a higher standard,” Thorpe said. “I don’t want one Arizona citizen to be compromised — through a terrorist attack or through a communicable disease.”

Supporters of the measures conjured memories of recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

At least 130 people died in Paris on November 13 when terrorists with the Islamic State ignited bombs and unloaded rifles outside a sports stadium and at a series of cafes. In San Bernardino on December 2, 14 people were killed and 22 injured when a married couple linked to ISIS opened fire on a Department of Public Health holiday party. (Many of the attackers were of Middle Eastern descent. However, no refugees have been charged.)

“This bill makes a statement: We can’t have another 9/11 or another San Bernardino,” said Representative Noel Campbell (R-Prescott). “The people of this country are fearful. When people come in who are not properly screened and cause great damage, we have the right to have the feelings we have.”

Critics argued, however, that the bills were unnecessary and only served to make Arizona look racist.

Before refugees can be resettled in the United States, they must be fingerprinted and rigorously vetted by several agencies, including the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI, said  Representative Bruce Wheeler (D-Tucson).

“Nothing is foolproof. The Titanic, the ‘unsinkable ship,’ sank,” he said. “But to try to scapegoat refugees from any part of the world for the actions of a few people is unfounded, and I think it hurts our community.”

Arizona’s program to help refugees find jobs, learn English, and navigate the healthcare system, called the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, is fully funded by the federal government, according to the State Department of Economic Security.

Representatives from two nonprofit agencies that work with the federal government to resettle refugees testified that their programs, as well, were funded by federal dollars.

The statistics that Gowan’s bill seeks already are readily available, said Representative Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix), rattling off the number of refugees who have been resettled in Arizona in the past three years and the amount of money the federal government has invested in their care.

“I’m concerned that Arizona has a reputation for demonizing foreigners and for fear-mongering about people who look different from us or speak different from us,” she said. “I don’t think this bill actually does anything but send another message that we are driven by fear.”  


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