The controversy over Syrian refugees and where they will be placed is blowing the lid off the federal government’s refugee resettlement program as governors are learning just how secretive this program really is.
In a Nov. 17 conference call with the White House, governors from more than a dozen states were told they were not permitted to find out who is being resettled in their states, according to sources who listened in on the call.
That conference call was initiated by the White House after 27 governors said they would at least temporarily bar refugees from being resettled in their states if they could not find out what countries they were coming from and be given some assurances that they were properly screened. This uproar came in the wake of the Paris attacks after it was reported at least two of the attackers entered Europe as Syrian “refugees.”
“There was a real sense of frustration from all the governors that there is just a complete lack of transparency and communication coming from the federal government,” said one GOP state official who was on the conference call.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been especially problematic for the White House in its efforts to keep the details of Syrian refugee arrivals secret.
Pence and Christie have vowed to close their states completely to Syrian refugees if they can’t get the information they want – setting up a legal showdown over who has ultimate authority over the refugee program, the states or the White House.
Then came the news Monday that the White House would be offering a “new program” to assuage the governors concerns. The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee reported:
“In a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam and other governors, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough defended the refugee vetting process as ‘extraordinarily thorough and comprehensive.’ But McDonough said the administration would be willing to work through the National Governors Association to set up a new system to provide governors with more information about the refugees in their states.”
Under the “new” program, the State Department would compile a state-specific report on refugees resettled the prior month and prior fiscal year to date, upon the request of any governor. The monthly report would include the number of refugees resettled in the state and break the data down by nationality, age and gender.
Too little, too late?
The problem with that is, it’s after the fact, after refugees have been delivered to the states, and this information is already available to anyone who goes to the federal refugee-center database.
Ann Corcoran, the watchdog author of the Refugee Resettlement Watch blog, called the Obama administration’s “new” data program “laughable” because there is nothing new about it.
She said the nine private agencies that contract with the federal government to resettle refugees in 180 U.S. cities in 48 states hold weekly meetings with federal officials to determine where the refugees will be sent and from what countries they are coming.
“The White House is snookering these governors,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘OK, you want to know who is coming to your state, from where? We’ll let you know after the fact.’ When in reality that information is already out there on the Internet. It’s really an outrage when you think about it. The contractor knows exactly where the refugees are coming from but the governors are not allowed to know?”
Those nine federal contractors include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Episcopal Migration Ministries, the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, World Relief, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Contractors paid by feds but shielded from public records laws
These nine agencies get paid by the head with taxpayer-funded grants for every refugee they bring to the United States. The receive $1,950 in federal money for each refugee and get to keep about $750 of that. They can also apply for other grants to provide specialized services to the refugees.
The top executives of these agencies are paid handsomely. For instance, the CEO of IRC is former British Foreign Minister David Miliband, who is paid $500,000 a year. Two of his top aides were also brought on at IRC, and they each earn over $225,000 per year.
The agencies work as an arm of the federal government but are shielded from the requirements of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
“David Miliband gets to know how many refugees are coming next month to Indiana or New Jersey and from what countries but the governors don’t,” Corcoran said. “The Ethiopian Development Council gets to know but not the governors. The Catholic Bishops get to know but not the governors. Something is wrong with that picture.”
Corcoran said the governors need to press for their rights to information, even if it means going to court.
“The rights of the governors in this program have never been tested,” she said. “Until Paris and this whole thing blew up, I don’t think any governor would have bothered, but now we’re seeing the power of public opinion.”
And the problem goes way beyond the 10,000 Syrian refugees that Obama is bringing into the United States.
Since 1990, the United Nations-sponsored refugee program has sent more than 3 million refugees to the U.S., at least half of them from Muslim-dominated countries.
Just since 2002, the U.N. and U.S. State Department have delivered 79,377 Muslim refugees to U.S. cities from Iraq, 90,000 from Somalia, 11,000 from Afghanistan and thousands of others from Bosnia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma, according to federal databases.
The resettlement groups believe they have the authority to continue the program with or without the governors’ consent.
“We don’t believe the directive the governor put in place is necessarily enforceable,” said Erol Kekic, executive director of immigration and refugee programs for Church World Service. “Immigration is a federal issue. He can’t control who lives in his state.”
A religious charity resettling refugees in Indiana has told GOP Gov. Mike Pence the same thing this week.
The charity will finance a Syrian refugee family’s arrival in Indiana — even if Pence does not drop his order blocking state agencies from distributing federal funds intended to help settle refugees.
But the family, which has spent the past three years in a Jordanian refugee camp, may ultimately be placed in another state if Indiana is perceived as “hostile” or “unwelcoming,” Archdiocese of Indianapolis spokesman Greg Otolski told the Indianapolis Star Tuesday.
“These families are already under an incredible amount of stress,” Otolski said of the family’s anticipated arrival later this month. “What we don’t want to do is traumatize these people any more than they have already been traumatized.”
The ACLU sued Pence in November asking a federal court to block the governor’s order blocking the refugees from being resettled in Indiana.
Indiana governor not fooled
Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd said the governor has not shifted his stance and blamed the Obama administration for failing to “provide adequate security and background information to governors across the country.”
“The Obama administration … continues to ignore the concerns raised about the program,” Lloyd said in a statement.
Obama has said the vetting process for refugee resettlement is “the most thorough” of any category of immigrant, and that states lack legal authority to block the funding.
Obama’s comments on the thoroughness of the vetting process is opposite of his own FBI director, James Comey, who testified before Congress in October saying it was impossible to properly vet the Syrian refugees because his agency has no data to cross-check the identities and backgrounds on the vast majority of them.