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‘The federal government has failed’: Kansas Gov. Brownback backs out of refugee program

For months, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has had questions about the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. And, for months, he says he has failed to get satisfactory answers. So, this week, he announced that he’s pulling out of the program altogether.

“Because the federal government has failed to provide adequate assurances regarding refugees it is settling in Kansas, we have no option but to end our cooperation with and participation in the federal refugee resettlement program,” Brownback said in a Tuesday statement, announcing the withdrawal from a program that has placed more than 2,000 global refugees in Kansas over the past four years.

The decision is the latest development in a months-long saga that began in mid-November, when Brownback signed an executive order barring state officials from helping the federal government in its efforts to settle Syrian refugees in Kansas.

Brownback cited the then-days-old Paris terrorist attacks for the move, concluding that Syrian refugees present “an unacceptable risk to the safety and security of the State of Kansas.” In doing so, he joined a growing chorus of mostly Republican governors voicing such opposition — a group that would swell in number to more 30 governors.

In response, local religious and other organizations reiterated their commitment to assisting refugees. At least 35 United Methodist congregations in Kansas and Nebraska said they would sponsor a Syrian refugee family once allowed into the United States.

“We believe our Christian duty of hospitality, as well as our best contribution to the war against radical Islamic fighters, is to show that they cannot successfully stop us from living out our Christian and American values,” Bishop Scott J. Jones said at a November news conference.

The same day that Brownback signed his order, President Obama reiterated his support for welcoming refugees, warning against “equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.” He had, just months earlier, committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the ensuing fiscal year.

President Obama decried the calls from some to stop accepting Syrian refugees after the attacks in Paris, saying it would be "a betrayal of our values." (Video: AP, Photo: SAUL LOEB/AP)

Letters between federal and state officials show that the administration took Brownback seriously.

Days after he signed the order, Brownback got a response in the form of a letter signed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. In the five-page letter, the two senior officials laid forth the procedures and security checks conducted before a refugee is allowed to relocate to the United States.

“The security vetting for this population — the most vulnerable of individuals — is extraordinarily thorough and comprehensive,” they said. “It is the most robust screening process for any category of individuals seeking admission into the United States.”

Less than two weeks later, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough followed up with a letter of his own, proposing a process by which governors could request monthly reports identifying the number, nationality, age range and gender of refugees.

In responses to both letters, Brownback struck an appreciative but cautious tone. The correspondence continued over the ensuing months, with federal officials noting that they were limited in what they could share about the refugees due to confidentiality regulations.

That wasn’t good enough for Brownback.

In a Monday letter, he told the federal government that it had “failed to provide adequate assurances” regarding refugee resettlement, “leaving us with no option but to end our cooperation with and participation in the program.”

Syria wasn’t his only concern. Brownback on Tuesday also expressed concern over refugees from Iran and Sudan — both countries identified by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.

In the end, his decision will not affect federal efforts to relocated refugees in Kansas, a federal official said in a letter earlier this month.

“If the state were to cease participating in the refugee resettlement program, it would have no effect on the placement of refugees by the State Department in Kansas,” Actin Assistant Secreary for Children and Families Mark Greenberg said. Officials could just work with local resettlement agencies, nonprofits or NGO’s, he said.

The state has taken in 13 Syrian refugees from January 2015 through March 2016, according to Brownback’s office.

Between the 2012 and 2015 fiscal years, which end in late September, Kansas has received more than 2,000 refugees, with nearly half coming from Burma, according to federal data. The vast majority arrived from a small handful of countries: Burma, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Somalia. Fewer than 100 refugees have arrived from Sudan, Iran or Syria since 2012.

The state said it will work with the federal government to transfer the program to such an organization, a process that could take up to 120 days.