INDIANAPOLIS — After a terrorist attack in Paris last year carried out in part by Islamist terrorists who masqueraded as migrants, Gov. Mike Pence directed all state agencies to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees here in Indiana.
Pence is now running on the Republican presidential ticket with Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the United States, halting immigration from unspecified countries and sending Syrian refugees back to their war-torn homeland. During the campaign, Pence has also boasted about his move to block refugees in his state.
“In Indiana, we suspended the Syrian refugee program . . . in the wake of the terrorist attack,” Pence said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last month.
But things did not quite work out the way Pence says they did.
A single family scheduled to come to Indiana was diverted to Connecticut shortly after Pence’s announcement in November. But thanks to a lawsuit and subsequent court ruling overturning Pence’s directive, 140 Syrian refugees have since resettled in Indiana, with more expected in coming weeks. The state’s attorney general also argued in court that the directive “does not purport to preclude any refugees from settling in Indiana.”
“You can’t pick and choose who comes to your state,” said Cole Varga, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, which resettles refugees here.
Exodus and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued Pence days after his directive, claiming that the governor did not have constitutional authority to bar people from Indiana. While more than 30 governors have opposed housing Syrian refugees, Pence was the only one to be sued over his edict.
Malak Assaf, 25, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Indiana in May 2015, said she cried on the day Pence announced his move to block refugees from coming, fearing her brothers would be trapped overseas and unable to join her.
She had been in Indiana for six months and finally felt settled after her husband found a job and her children enrolled in school.
“It’s unfair, and it’s not the right thing to do,” she said through an interpreter, referring to both Pence’s edict and Trump’s proposal to send back Syrian refugees. She said those fleeing the vicious civil war in Syria just want a better life and future for their children.
Assaf said she would now miss Indianapolis if she goes out of town, and her brothers have made it to America.
“This is home, and I feel happy here,” she said.
After the lawsuit was filed, refugee resettlement groups in Indianapolis ignored Pence’s order. In a December meeting, Pence told Archbishop Joseph Tobin he was concerned that Syrian refugees could pose a security risk and that the United States has not put proper screening procedures in place. But Tobin had already decided that the church would continue resettling Syrian families in Indianapolis, even if it had to do so out of pocket.
“This is an essential part of who we are as Catholics, and we’re not going to back away from this,” said Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Richard Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said immigration decisions can be made only by the federal government. “Governors don’t have the power to stop anyone from coming into their state,” he said.
However, Primus said, states could turn down federal money and not participate in specific social-service programs — which is what Pence tried to do.
Indiana wanted to suspend the allocation of specific grants to refugee resettlement agencies, which use the money to fund services such as job counseling. According to court filings, Indiana would not deny Syrians benefits such as Medicaid based on their country of origin and the state would still use federal refugee resettlement grants to pay for services such as English-language instruction for refugee children in schools.
“Governor Pence has merely suspended, in part, a discretionary federal grant program,” Indiana Attorney General Gregory F. Zoeller wrote. “This is meant as a deterrent, but if those agencies wish to resettle those refugees regardless, the Governor will not take further actions (besides denying their claims) to stop them.”
Zoeller wrote that Pence’s action was “far more measured” than the “hyperbolic assertions that the Governor is attempting to ‘close [Indiana’s] borders’ to Syrians.”
In February, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt struck down Pence’s directive.
“The State’s conduct clearly constitutes national origin discrimination,” Walton Pratt wrote, and “in no way furthers the State’s asserted interest in the safety of Indiana residents.”
Pence’s administration appealed. A hearing is set for Sept. 14 at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago.
Trump’s presidential campaign did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Pence in Indiana pointed to the governor’s past statements on the issue.
After Pratt’s ruling, Pence said the safety of Indiana residents is his first priority and he prefers to err on the side of caution.
“For that reason, following the terrorist attack in Paris and the acknowledgment by the Director of the FBI that there are gaps in the screening for Syrian refugees, I suspended participation by the State of Indiana in the Syrian refugee resettlement program and I stand by that decision,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Syrians keep coming to Indiana. They include members of the Kylani family, who had never heard of Indianapolis until they landed here in May. After school one day recently in the household, children showed off pictures and books while NBC’s “The Voice” ran on television. The Arabic version of the show lends a small touch of the familiar in a place where there are few.
Ahmad Kylani, 37, is an engineer who now spends 12-hour shifts unloading clothing in a warehouse. His wife, 27-year-old Nour Alhassan, one day wants to put her accounting studies to work in the United States. Marya, 6, wore a shirt reading, “happier than a unicorn eating cupcakes on a rainbow.” Safwan, 5, excitedly showed his mother a picture of a hamburger. Faisal, 2, pretended to talk on the phone with an empty Tic Tac box.
“I’m real grateful and happy to be here,” Ahmad Kylani said through an interpreter.
Kylani said he was “kind of offended” by Trump and Pence’s proposals because they are targeting one specific community.
“But he has freedom of speech,” Kylani said of Trump.
Kylani said he has always abided by the law and that if he and his family did not have a clear record they would not be in the United States. He talked about the suffering and war in Syria and said President Obama allows refugees to come to America.
“So if Obama said that, what’s Mike Pence going to do about it?” Kylani said through the interpreter. “Leave us alone, so my family and children can live a good life.”
The process for vetting refugees starts overseas, where people register with or are identified by organizations including the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency screens and interviews refugees, fact-checks their stories and collects biometric information.
Refugees referred to the United States are interviewed at a resettlement center, where information and documents are collected to launch a security check by multiple federal agencies, including the FBI. Syrians are subject to an enhanced security review. A detailed interview with a U.S. immigration officer is then conducted. Biometric information is collected and checked against numerous databases. If a person clears the security checks, he or she goes through a medical screening and, ultimately, cultural orientation. The process can take more than two years, the security check active the entire time.
“There is no population that is more closely scrutinized and vetted that comes to the United States than Syrian refugees,” said agency spokesman Christopher Boian.
Razan, 31, who did not want to give her last name out of fear of reprisal against relatives still in Syria, said it took more than a year of vetting before her family could move to Indiana.
Razan and other refugees repeatedly noted that many Syrians have suffered and scores of people have died in the country. She said she does not think Trump and Pence should be scared of Muslims but understands why they are concerned about the Islamic State terrorist group that controls some territory in the country.
“The same way he’s scared of them,” she said of Trump and the Islamic State through an interpreter, “the people in Syria are scared of them, too.”