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Baker cautious, not opposed to refugee resettlement in MA

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Baker cautious, not opposed to refugee resettlement in MA
Governor Charlie Baker said he is not opposed to resettling Syrian refugees in Massachusetts, but is concerned about the process for vetting them. (Photo: Joanne DeCaro)

Governor Charlie Baker sought to clarify his stance on Syrian refugees at an ethnic media roundtable last week, following outcry over earlier comments.

In November, Baker reportedly said he was “not interested in accepting refugees from Syria” into Massachusetts, which sparked protests at the State House. At the roundtable meeting, the governor said reports had lost the nuance of his position, and that he was not opposed to resettling refugees, but concerned about the security process.

“I never said we would stop accepting refugees,” Baker said at the meeting. “What I said was that I was concerned about the vetting process, especially when you’re dealing with countries that are hostile to the United States or with which the United States does not have a structured relationship.”

Baker said he seeks assurance that the process for vetting refugees is robust enough to prevent terrorists slipping in among them.

“One problem with taking a nuanced position on an issue like this is often what ends up in the media is a phrase, not the complete sentence. My complete sentence was, ‘I would like to know more about the vetting process, but at the same time, especially when it comes to those countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran — where the U.S. has no relationship or a hostile relationship, to be sure that the people who in most cases are fleeing horrible circumstances — war, terror — are vetted properly so that we don’t end up in a situation where people who wish to do us harm use that process in a cynical and sinister way to enter the country.’”

Eva A. Millona is executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee and Advocacy Coalition. Two weeks ago, MIRA met with members of the Baker administration to discuss refugee resettlement. From this meeting, along with other comments by Baker and his choice not to join many Republican governors in signing a letter calling for halting resettlement, Millona said she felt that Baker, while cautious, was not against keeping the state open to refugees.

“It was more a statement of caution than of stopping the resettlement,” she said. “There is a commitment that Massachusetts does remain a welcoming place.”

The federal government sets immigration policy, and states cannot legally refuse to accept refugees.

National stage

Governor Charlie Baker answered questions on his stance on Syrian refugees and presidential candidate Donald Trump at an ethnic media roundtable at the State House. Louis Gutierrez (left), executive director of Health Connector, made an announcement about health care enrollment.

These comments feed into a national dialogue in which fear of terrorism often translates into a fear of refugees.

Last month, President Barack Obama promised to resettle a minimum of 10,000 refugees in 2016. House Republicans responded by passing a bill that would implement an even more stringent refugee vetting process than currently is in place, should it become law.

Currently, the United Nations Refugee Agency screens refugee status applicants. Less than one percent of the global refugee population is approved by this agency, according to information provided on the White House’s website. The United States then considers admitting some of these pre-approved applicants. But before they may enter the country, security agencies — including the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Intelligence Community — conduct their own intensive investigations. That process can last years.

Twenty-seven Republican governors also sent a letter to Obama protesting his plans to admit more Syrian refugees. In the letter, they expressed concerns that terrorists may enter the U.S. by posing as refugees and asked that the president suspend the resettlement process pending an intensive review and possible updating of the background check applicants processes for refugee status undergo.

Baker did not sign the governors’ letter, although he said he is concerned that terrorists may seek to enter the country using fake passports.

“[We heard that] ISIS has the ability to make American passports and they seem to do it with frequency and it’s a major concern,” he said.

Millona said that the U.S. has a strong screening process with a history of success in not admitting criminals.

“We have a very thorough multi-layered security process that is going well,” Millona said. “If you look at number of refugees we have received over the years since 1975, we have received about three million refuges that have been resettled successfully in this country, and only three have been arrested on terrorist charges. Statistically, it is not supported that [refugees] pose a threat.”

Since 9/11 the U.S. admitted 784,000 refugees, she said, none of whom have been arrested.

Calling out Trump

Baker also reiterated condemnation of Donald Trump’s call for barring Muslims from entering the country. The presidential candidate had proposed indiscriminately blocking all members of the religion in hopes that such a measure would further national security.

“I think his comments were ridiculous,” Baker said, saying they run contrary to the United States’ values and do not make sense on a global level.

“Many of the people who are ultimately the most important in the Western countries who are engaged in this war with radical jihad are Muslims,” he said. “And many of [those fighting radicalism] are Muslim-majority countries. And they practice their faith peacefully and suffer many of the same tragedies and terror at the hands of the radical state that people in Christian-majority countries are dealing with.”