For those who have regularly read my columns, it will come as no surprise that I am not a supporter of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad. I’ve disagreed with him on many issues in the past. His Nov. 16 order that state agencies immediately halt any work on the resettlement of Syrian refugees to Iowa didn’t come as a surprise to me, but it is disappointing.
In his comments about his decision, the Governor said, “We have welcomed refugees from around the world into Iowa. We must continue to have compassion for others, but we must also maintain the safety of Iowans and the security of our state. Until a thorough and thoughtful review is conducted by the intelligence community and the safety of Iowans can be assured, the federal government should not resettle any Syrian refugees in Iowa.”
I agree with the Governor 100 percent with his statement about continuing to show compassion for others while also needing to maintain the safety and security of Iowa and its citizens. But I believe Branstad is ignoring an already stringent review procedure the federal government has in place for Syrian refugees that already keeps Americans safe.
All refugees wishing to enter the United States begin with a referral from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. The agency has the task of registering those people who seek asylum around the world, whether they wish to come to the United States or to another country. That number approaches 15 million people a year. The registration process includes in-depth refugee interviews, as well as reference checks from their home country along with a biological screening. If people seeking asylum are from Syria, they are subject to additional screening. According to Jana Mason, a senior adviser to UNHCR, “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees are the single most heavily screened and vetted.” Multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies perform rigorous screening of any Syrian coming to the United States.
Of those who pass background checks, some are placed for overseas resettlement. If a refugee is referred to the United States, they are subject to an intensive U.S. screening process that includes consultation from nine different government agencies. Among factors considered for placement in the United States are existing family in the U.S., employment possibilities and special factors such as access to needed medical treatment.
The entire process takes between 18 and 24 months, meaning any Syrian refugee wanting to come to this country probably won’t be here until 2018. And it won’t be everyone who requests entry. The screening process passes 50 percent of those who request asylum here. Of that 50 percent, half of them are children, while 25 percent are adults over 60 years of age.
Forgive me, but the Syrian refugees from those demographic groups that make it to this country don’t exactly make up a who’s who list of international terrorists. But that’s not the message a number of Republican presidential candidates would like you to believe. It also appears that Branstad is keeping in step with some of the Republican candidates. It’s a short-sighted message that is long on fear and short on specifics.
At the end of the day, we really don’t know how many Syrian refugees are beating down the door to get into Iowa. My guess is it’s closer to hundreds instead of thousands. But whatever the number, Iowa should be a welcoming, safe haven for these people. As Iowans, we know what we are proud of in this state. We help those in need. We welcome others into our communities, our churches, and our homes.
The Iowa welcome signs that greet visitors when they enter the state reads in part, “Fields of Opportunities”. Let’s make sure those opportunities are available for all, regardless of where they come from.