Refugee resettlement agency staff said this week that U.S. governors’ statements that Syrian refugees are unwelcome in their states after the Paris attacks have fueled death threats against agency workers and the immigrants themselves, and have contributed to a climate of fear.
Church World Service (CWS), one of nine resettlement agencies working with the federal government to accommodate refugees, said that its Greensboro, North Carolina office on Tuesday received a threat serious enough for staff to call local police and the FBI.
Sarah Ivory, a CWS regional director, said the agency received the following threat by phone: “Get these terrorists out of my state, this is your last warning.”
Death threats have also been aimed directly at the refugees themselves, Ivory said.
“An Iraqi refugee in Kentucky had someone shout ‘I'm going to kill you’ when he exited the bus,” she said in an email. “He went home and shaved his beard and tearfully told this story to his case manager."
“We’ve seen clearly that when politicians stand in front of public audiences and invoke fear [of refugees], people use this as a reason to lash out at people who are Muslim or from the Middle East,” said Ivory. “That puts our clients at extreme risk.”
Bill Frelick, director of the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch, said recent comments from U.S. governors play into the hands of armed groups like Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which seek to sow prejudice and fear.
Frelick said hundreds of Syrians and Iraqis with whom he has spoken have echoed such sentiments. Refugees told him they just want to provide education and safety for their children, he added.
“It’s a pretty simple human message from people who just want to live normal lives and live at peace with their neighbors,” Frelick said. “That’s who the refugees are.”
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who opposes the resettlement of refugees in his state, had not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera by the time of publication.
As of Thursday, 31 governors had said they felt Syrian refugees represented threats to their states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Background checks of refugees, some said, aren’t enough to keep ISIL agents out of the country.
Republican House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said this week it was necessary to “pause” the resettlement of Syrian refugees and increase security measures. The House approved the bill Thursday in a 289-137 vote. Forty-seven Democrats joined Republicans to give supporters enough votes to overide a threatened veto by President Barack Obama. The bill now heads to the Senate.
Obama in September had vowed that the United States would take in 10,000 Syrians, identified by the United Nations as refugees, over the next fiscal year.
On Wednesday, Tennessee Rep. Glen Casada, chairman of the House GOP Caucus, told local newspaper The Tennessean, "We need to activate the Tennessee National Guard and stop them from coming into the state by whatever means we can. I’m not worried about what a bureaucrat in D.C. or an unelected judge thinks."
Obama has said that fears of ISIL agents being among the refugees are unfounded, and that security checks on Syrians seeking refuge were thorough. Those currently arriving and set to arrive over the next year have spent at least 18 months in refugee camps waiting for U.S. authorities to process their applications. About half of all refugee requests receive denials, CWS said.
“There is no harder way to get into the United States than through the refugee resettlement channel,” Ivory said, adding that screenings include interviews with Homeland Security, document checks and data on physical traits.
Jen Smyers, policy director for CWS’s immigration and refugee program, said her group won’t comply with the governors’ demand to keep refugees out.
“We are confident that these governors do not have the legal authority to stop resettlement in their state,” she said.
But on Tuesday, Exodus Refugee Immigration, a resettlement agency in Indiana, received a letter from the state government telling the group not to accept a Syrian family due to arrive Wednesday. The office also told Exodus not to accept any future refugees.
The family of three, from the Syrian city of Homs, will be going to Connecticut instead, according to The New York Times. They had been waiting for three years for refugee status, and had been fully vetted, said Carleen Miller, Exodus executive director of Exodus.
Miller said she fears one weapon state governors like Indiana’s Mike Pence can wield against refugees: funding.
“The state administers benefits to refugees and we have a contract with them to provide employment, social services and other benefits that assist refugees in becoming successful in our community,” Miller said. The funding comes from the federal government but is distributed by state authorities.
“These are federal dollars passed through the state. We were concerned that the family would be blocked from the essential services that they deserve and require.”
"In the future we will not transfer cases," she said.