After letting the issue die last month without a vote, the York County Council will revisit whether to go on the record in opposition to welcoming Syrian refugees to the county.
The council on Monday instructed county attorney Michael Kendree to draw up a new resolution addressing whether people displaced by the four-year civil war in Syria should be admitted to the United States. Council members will vote on the new resolution at their Dec. 21 meeting.
Monday’s decision came one month after the council took no action on a resolution offered by Councilman Bruce Henderson that called on South Carolina to suspend resettlement of refugees “from North Africa and the Middle East, including Syria.” That motion died when no other council member offered a second to bring it to a vote.
Since then, the refugee issue has been thrust back into the national spotlight following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the mass shooting by a radicalized Muslim couple in California. Multiple people have spoken at recent council meetings, some traveling from outside the county, supporting Henderson’s contention that refugees pose a threat to national security.
“It’s imperative that we act on this,” Henderson said Monday. “We’ve seen on TV these evil actions. ... I brought this to the council two weeks before Paris.”
Authorities suspect at least one of the Paris attackers may have come from Syria, although many if not all of the Paris attackers were citizens of France or other European countries.
‘... don’t look for dolphins’
Henderson said his resolution would be called “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, whatever,” but added, “If you get attacked by a shark, you don’t look for dolphins.”
Many speakers in favor of a resolution at Monday’s meeting explicitly tied their opposition to refugee resettlement specifically to the fact most of the refugees are Muslim. Michael Reed with the Columbia-based Palmetto Christian Defense, called on the council to pass a resolution opposing all Muslim refugees coming into York County, echoing calls from presidential candidate Donald Trump to bar any Muslim from entering the United States.
That kind of talk disturbs James “Jumah” Moore, executive director of the Islamic Center of South Carolina in Rock Hill.
“We’ve got to stop trying put everybody in one basket,” Moore said. “You see other religions do things, but Muslims seem to get singled out.”
Moore supports the United States helping Syrians fleeing the war; “It’s not a religious thing, it’s a human thing,” he said. He doesn’t know of any Syrians who worship at Rock Hill’s Masjid al-Salam (Mosque of Peace), but said there could be some among the mosque’s diverse congregation of 33 separate nationalities.
Reed also cited the case of Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani-born woman identified as one of the San Bernardino shooters along with her U.S. citizen husband, as proof lax security screenings of those entering the country pose a danger to Americans’ safety.
“If they can’t screen out one, how are they going to screen out thousands?” Reed said, although Malik entered the U.S. not as a refugee but on a marriage visa sponsored by her husband, Syed Farook. “They don’t have the manpower.”
‘I love America’
Moore said he hasn’t heard from any county officials as the resolution is being developed. “It seems like some people want to get on the bandwagon, and it doesn’t matter how the people who live here feel,” Moore said. “I love America. I was born and raised here, so it doesn’t make any sense to me the rhetoric you hear about how all Muslims are bad.”
Local Muslims aren’t the only ones concerned about the resolution. The Rev. Sam McGregor, pastor at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church near Lake Wylie, said he wrote Henderson after the councilman first proposed the resolution expressing his disappointment in the measure.
“It seems we’ve got swept up in a fearful reaction that targets certain folks,” McGregor said. “That goes against what I believe in as a Christian and an American.”
Earlier this year, McGregor was one of two dozen pastors who called for interreligious harmony with “our Muslim brothers and sisters” and toured York County’s Holy Islamville community (which is distinct from Rock Hill’s mosque) after the settlement was threatened with violent attack.
He said he’s particularly concerned about the refugee situation “at this time of year, when as a Christian I celebrate a Christ child who was a refugee, and fled to another country after he was born.”
Rather than take up Henderson’s resolution again, Kendree, the county attorney, will craft a resolution similar to Gov. Nikki Haley’s position on the issue. After initially saying she supported helping refugees, Haley wrote to the U.S. State Department after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks asking that refugees not be sent to South Carolina.
Some council members indicated they would be willing to affirm Haley’s stance, although Henderson said the governor hadn’t been forceful enough in opposing resettlement.
No resettlement plans for S.C.
World Relief Spartanburg, one of two South Carolina nonprofits that work with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, says there are no plans for any of the estimated 10,000 Syrian war refugees the U.S. will admit next year to be settled in South Carolina. Executive director Jason Lee said sister organizations in North Carolina and Georgia are more likely to receive Syrians, because they’re better set up to deal with their particular needs.
“It’s not that we don’t want Syrians,” Lee said, “It’s just that that’s where they will receive the best services.”
Lee says the push to block Syrian resettlement is based on misinformation and “political posturing,” but said he has no problem with Haley’s stance on the issue, since he says the governor has generally been supportive of the needs of refugees resettled in the state.
In any event, states and localities have few available tools to stop the federally run resettlement program, much less the movement of individual refugees after they enter the country.
“This is a very mobile country,” Councilman Robert Winkler said Monday. “If you let whoever into one county, they can come into any county.”