RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans return to the Capitol on Wednesday with a handful of bills intended to tighten controls on refugees from some of the world’s hot spots.
Prompted by recent terrorist attacks and arrests at home and abroad, the legislation would prohibit state agencies from assisting any efforts by the federal government to resettle certain refugees in Virginia.
Resettlement has been a highly fraught topic across the country, particularly in the South, with polls showing Americans wary that President Obama’s pledge to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees could make the country vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.
Those fears have deepened amid revelations that the Islamist extremist who made a failed attack on a Paris police station last week had been living in a shelter for asylum seekers in western Germany. On Thursday, federal prosecutors said that two Iraqi-born men who came to the United States as refugees had been arrested in terrorism investigations.
Yet cracking down too hard on refugees is not without political risk. The mayor of Roanoke faced calls for his resignation in November after he suggested that Syrian refugees be treated like the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II. Mayor David Bowers (D) later apologized for his remark but stayed on the job and announced last week that he is mulling a run for Congress.
In Richmond, where the 60-day legislative session begins Wednesday, one of the bills is intended to mirror legislation passed by the U.S. House in November. Sponsored by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), it would prohibit the state from helping the federal government resettle refugees from Iraq or Syria — unless the director of the FBI and other intelligence officials personally vouch for them.
Another bill, submitted by Del. John M. O’Bannon III (R-Henrico), calls for government auditors to study how much the state and its localities spend on refugee resettlements in general and Syrian refugees in particular.
And another measure seeks to address safety concerns without drawing complaints that it unfairly discriminates against people — a concern for some Republicans after GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the country.
That legislation would put a two-year pause on state assistance to certain federal resettlement programs but does not single out specific countries. Instead, it would apply to refugees from countries that the United States designates as state sponsors of terrorism. Currently on that list: Iran, Syria and Sudan.
“It’s not targeting any one group. It’s not targeting any religion. It’s saying any refugee individual from those terrorist-exporting countries,” said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), the measure’s main sponsor. “We’re going to take a two-year pause to give the U.S. government time . . . to get this in line and make sure we’re identifying folks properly.”
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said there is no need for such legislation.
“It’s absurd,” he said. “If it passes, the governor ought to veto it.”
Saslaw said the United States is doing a good job of vetting refugees before they come into the country, noting that the process takes up to two years.
“The people who go through that refugee program, they can’t just walk across the ocean,” he said. “Eighty percent of them are women and children.”
Brian Coy, a spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), said the governor will evaluate the legislation if it passes. Coy noted, however, that there are no Syrian refugees slated to come to Virginia and that there is no state money spent on resettling refugees, because the state’s refugee resettlement office operates entirely on federal funding. Coy also said that being involved in the resettlement process keeps state officials better informed about any placements, which federal officials can make in Virginia with or without the commonwealth’s blessing.
One of the sponsors of Hugo’s measure is Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Salem). Two of Habeeb’s great-grandparents were born in Syria.
Habeeb spoke out against the Roanoke mayor’s comments in November. At the same time, he said, Hugo’s bill strikes a good middle ground between lock-’em-up and do-nothing approaches.
“We weren’t running around saying: ‘Build a wall. Keep people out of Virginia,’ ” Habeeb said. “We’re not saying, ‘Oh, forget it, we’ll just defer to the federal government.’ I think we were taking a balanced approach, seeking to figure out what holes might exist.”