Branstad joins rush to slam door on Syrian refugees

Yesterday Governor Terry Branstad joined the club of 24 governors (23 Republicans and a Democrat) who have said their states will not accept refugees from Syria. They don't have the power to block resettlement of refugees within their state borders, any more than pandering presidential candidates would be able to adopt unconstitutional religion-based criteria for deciding which people to allow into this country.

Still, Branstad's knee-jerk reaction to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris is a disappointing retreat from the more reasonable stance he took earlier this fall on refugees from Syria coming to Iowa.

During his regular weekly press conference on Monday morning, Branstad sounded like he was merely seeking better information and vetting:

“Well, I don’t know that the states have the authority to decide whether or not we can take refugees, this is a federal program. I share the concern of other governors about the safety and well-being of our citizens,” Branstad says.

Branstad says the attacks in France and other activity by ISIS shows the concern about the refugees is real. “At least one of the terrorists that was involved in the terrible atrocities that occurred on Friday was somebody that came in I guess with the refugees from Syria,” Branstad says. “So, we need to be concerned about ISIS radicals being embedded with these refugees.” Branstad says not only has ISIS infiltrated the refugees, but he says they’ve also been able to radicalize citizens of other countries, and they have cells here in the U.S.

“It’s a very dangerous situation that exists today and I want to do all I can as governor of this state to protect the safety and well-being of Iowans. I don’t want people coming here without a very careful vetting to make sure that they could have been radicalized or been part of an ISIS operation.” The governor was asked if the state might set up its own vetting process if the federal government wants to send refugees here.

“Well first of all, the federal government has got to share with us the information. And they haven’t always been willing to do that. And so, we’re going to demand that the federal government be open and transparent about what people are being place,” according to Branstad.

Later in the day, the governor's office released this statement: "Governor Branstad orders halt to Syrian refugee resettlements by state agencies."

Today, Gov. Terry Branstad ordered all state agencies to halt any work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately in order to ensure the security and safety of Iowans. In light of the Paris attacks, resettlement of Syrian refugees in Iowa should cease until a thorough review of the process can be conducted by the U.S. intelligence community and the safety of Iowans can be assured.

It has been publicly reported that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has expressed concern over the ability of the Islamic State to “infiltrate waves of Syrian war refugees flowing into Europe and potentially the United States.”

In the past, the federal government has failed to be forthcoming and transparent with information on refugee resettlement and immigration issues. Openness and transparency on resettlement is paramount to the safety of Iowans. The federal government must assure that refugees have been properly screened and security protocols have been taken before being allowed in the United States.

“We have welcomed refugees from around the world into Iowa. We must continue to have compassion for others but we must also maintain the safety of Iowans and the security of our state,” said Branstad. “Until a thorough and thoughtful review is conducted by the intelligence community and the safety of Iowans can be assured, the federal government should not resettle any Syrian refugees in Iowa.”

Branstad can talk a good game about welcoming refugees, but his actions don't always match his words. And as Todd Dorman observed in September, how ironic for the "master of blindside edicts" to demand openness and transparency from federal officials.

More to the point, the governor's comments yesterday paint a false picture of current federal policy. In reality, the U.S. has been slow to accept refugees from Syria, largely because this country "has one of the most robust security screening processes in the world for potential refugees," as Kyle Blaine recently reported for BuzzFeed.

Many European countries will accept a refugee application based simply on a case file. The U.S. system works much differently.

Fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since the start of the Syrian civil war. Though the Obama administration said the United States will accept 10,000 refugees in 2016, the complex process takes an average of 18 to 24 months.

Many of those refugees who would be approved in 2016 are already going through the security-screening process and upon completion will enter the U.S. next year, according to a senior State Department official.

Incidentally, "Syrian passports found near the bodies of two of the suspected Paris attackers were fakes that were likely made in Turkey," according to French police sources.

Never mind all that. Senator Chuck Grassley backed Branstad up in an interview with Radio Iowa.

“If it was just Governor Branstad or a governor of this state or that state, a single one or a couple, that would be a different story,” Grassley says, “but when you have a majority of the governors sending the signal that they’re sending, it is a very strong signal that, it seems to me, a president ought to have some respect for.”

Under current law, Grassley says the federal government is required to consult with the state’s governors periodically to discuss refugees. [...]

Grassley says he agrees with Branstad and is hopeful the Obama Administration will take heed. “This is a case where national security is equally as important as what the immigration laws are,” Grassley says. “In fact, the number-one responsibility of the federal government is to protect the American people. If there’s a danger there, I think that ought to be considered.” He adds, “We must do all we can to prevent a Paris-style attack from happening here.”

Grassley says under the administration’s latest proposed plan, we may not be able to stop such an attack in the U.S., because “we cannot tell who, among the thousands of Syrian refugees the administration wishes to resettle here, are terrorists.”

In September and October, Branstad and Grassley faced criticism from conservative Republican State Senator Jason Schultz for not taking a sufficiently hard line against letting refugees from Syria into Iowa. But people like Schultz or fellow Ted Cruz endorser Steve Deace won't be satisfied by the governor's latest steps. They want much stronger action, grounded in a public acknowledgement "that Western Civilization is superior to a culture based on the Koran."

During the past 24 hours, many Iowans have shared on social media variations on the same theme: a sense of profound disappointment that Branstad couldn't live up to the example Governor Bob Ray set during the 1970s. Daniel Finney expressed it well in his latest Des Moines Register column, headlined, "Branstad's Syrian refugee ban betrays Iowa." Click through to read the whole piece, but here's an excerpt:

Our governors didn't always act with such fear. When the Vietnam War ended, then-Gov. Bob Ray welcomed scores of refugees to the state. We sent aid in money and people to displaced Cambodians.

That's the worst part of Branstad’s decision. It turns our back on Iowa's tradition of welcoming refugees.

Oh, make no mistake, people were against helping in the 1970s, too, even sending aid. [...]

Ray’s own church, the Disciples of Christ Church, opposed getting involved in sending aid to Cambodians. It was too politically sensitive an issue, the church leaders said.

Ray traveled to the church’s convention in St. Louis and gave the finest speech of his long, storied career. He noted Missouri’s state motto was the “Show Me State.” [...]

“Don’t tell me of your concerns for these people when you have a chance to save their lives,” Ray said. “Show me. Don’t tell me how Christian you are. Show me.”

For more on Ray's role in welcoming refugees from Asia, see this backgrounder from Iowa Public Television.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- At Iowa Starting Line, Pat Rynard reviewed Republican presidential candidates' despicable pandering on Syrian refugees. As David Roberts described in the context of the conservative response to the Paris terrorist attacks, it's striking how many politicians will endorse a policy "almost *entirely* based on what feels emotionally satisfactory."

UPDATE: The Iowa Senate Democratic sent out this press release on November 17. Petersen was a leading proponent of the refugee assistance project in Polk County, for which Branstad vetoed state funding in July.

Governor Branstad’s decision to slam the door shut on Syrians refugees is heartbreaking, yet not surprising

Statement by Senator Janet Petersen

“Yesterday morning, the governor talked of his concern for those driven from their homes by war and terrorism. Hours later, Governor Branstad took action that demonstrates once again how far short he falls of his Republican predecessor, Governor Robert Ray.

“Governor Ray’s leadership during the Southeast Asian refugee crisis made Iowans proud. Governor Branstad’s pandering to uninformed fearmongering embarrasses us all.

Earlier this year, Governor Branstad vetoed bipartisan legislation for a small pilot project to improve refugee services. He claimed he needed more time to create a “state-wide solution for refugees.” *

“Is turning his back on desperate people Governor Branstad’s “state-wide solution for refugees”?


SECOND UPDATE: I did not realize that less than a month ago, Branstad presented an award to honor Ray's actions on behalf of Asian refugees during the 1970s. From the Hoover Presidential Foundation's October 26 press release (emphasis in original):

Gov. Robert Ray named first Uncommon Iowan by Hoover Presidential Foundation

Cedar Rapids, IOWA – Oct. 26, 2015 – Former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray was presented the inaugural Uncommon Iowan Award on Friday, Oct. 23 at the Hoover Presidential Foundation annual Celebration Banquet in Cedar Rapids. Governor Terry Branstad made the presentation and Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president, World Food Prize Foundation accepted on Ray’s behalf. Ray was unable to attend due to health reasons.

“Beginning in 1975, the Ray administration encouraged Iowans to assist with the settlement of Southeast Asian refugees in our state,” Branstad said. “He served the people of Iowa well. I know, because I was his third Lt. Governor.” Ray had spent 14 years in the Governor’s office. He has continued to be extremely active in public affairs in Iowa since leaving the governorship, serving as interim Mayor of the City of Des Moines, President of Drake University, and leading several statewide educational awareness efforts and fundraising campaigns. Ray is a life-term trustee of the Hoover Presidential Foundation and has been involved with the Foundation for over 30 years.

“Governor Ray is a great example for all...” said Branstad, “when he said, and I quote, ‘I think what it shows is that everyone can do something and make a difference in this world. We might not be able to do it all but we can do something, and isn't there great satisfaction in that? The happiest people I know are people who are doing things for other people.'" Branstad continues, “Governor Ray is a great example of a wonderful humanitarian who made a real difference and continues to make a difference. I am honored to be presenting this Uncommon Iowan Award to Ambassador Ken Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, the aid to Governor Ray that helped make it possible to bring all these refugees to the state of Iowa, on behalf of Gov. Ray."

“It was one of the great privileges in my life, was to spend four years working for Gov. Bob Ray,” Amb. Kenneth Quinn said. “Here’s why he is justifiably the uncommon Iowan. 1975, 130,000 people fleeing from Vietnam, Laos, and they’re coming to America. Each state is going to take its share. But there’s one group called the Tai Dam. They have their own distinct culture, language, kinships, history and they’re about to be scattered and all that is going to be lost. And they write a letter to every governor in the United State of America saying, ‘please take us as a people.’ Only one governor ever wrote back, Gov. Bob Ray.”

Quinn continues to describe how Ray went to Washington and lobbied the Health Education and Welfare Department and the State Department, “and they said OK, you can have all the Tai Dam. They’re still in Des Moines, they’re still in Iowa,” reports Quinn.

Quinn also related a story of a trip to Thailand in 1979 with Gov. Ray to look at refugee camps. When they got there, they were rushed to the border because the first 30,000 Cambodians had just escaped the Khmer Rouge. They walked through [an] emaciated group of starved people who were dying at the rate of 50 to 100 a day. The governor took photos back to Des Moines and told his story to the Des Moines Register. The next day the headline in the paper read, ‘I watched people die. – Ray.’ According to Quinn, that led to the formation of Iowa SHARES, who raised $600,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas. On Christmas Day, the first truck left Iowa loaded with relief supplies, followed days later by groups of doctors and nurses. SHARES stands for Sends Help, Aides Refugees, Ends Starvation.

In his parting remarks, Quinn relates another story of the trip to Thailand where a group from Tai Dam met with Gov. Ray and wanted to show them their symbol of hope. “They brought us into a small thatched hut and said ‘inside here is our symbol of hope.’ We thought it must be some statue or item from their history,” Quinn said. “They brought us in and there, tacked up on the wall, was the Iowa Department of Transportation highway map, with pins in it where their people had gone. The man who made the shape of our state the symbol of hope to people 12,000 miles away, who have nothing in common with most any of us, was Governor Bob Ray, the Uncommon Iowan.”

THIRD UPDATE: Iowa's four Catholic bishops released the following statement on November 17.

The recent movement of 27 governors in the United States to apparently oppose entrance to Syrian refugees to their respective states (CNN, 11/16/2015) revives an embarrassing experience in our country’s history.

During World War II, those of Japanese nationality in the United States were rounded up and placed in confinement. In the aftermath of World War II, apologies and compensation were accorded to the victims of such unfortunate actions. As frequently occurs to families or nationalities, guilt was attributed by association.

In line with the long-standing American tradition, we should strive to determine how we can serve so many who are desperately seeking a new life away from terror and persecution.

The Catholic Church in Iowa has a decades-long history in assisting with the resettlement of refugees from across the globe. Out of respect for human life and dignity, welcoming the homeless and the stranger is a fundamental part of our faith. Refugees are typically among the most vulnerable people in the world, fleeing dangerous situations and looking to protect their families and children. They want to live a normal and safe life.

Each refugee must undergo a vetting process by the State Department and Homeland Security. This process includes personal interviews, extensive security checks in coordination with the National Counterterrorism Center, and pre-departure checks that occur between the initial interview and the date of travel.

Citizens of our country justifiably desire security. It will be achieved by searching out those identified with terrorism whether they be American, European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern or of any other ethnic and national origin. The federal government needs to be vigilant in regard to its responsibility to safeguard our communities against the despicable actions of terrorists.

We appreciate Gov. Branstad’s concern for the safety of Iowans and expect that we can continue to work with the state on a careful process of refugee resettlement.

Most Rev. Michael Jackels, Archbishop of Dubuque

Most Rev. R. Walker Nickless, Bishop of Sioux City

Most Rev. Martin Amos, Bishop of Davenport

Most Rev. Richard Pates, Bishop of Des Moines

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa's executive director Jeremy Rosen expressed disappointment that Branstad took an approach so unlike Governor Ray's 40 years ago, Dar Danielson reported for Radio Iowa.

Rosen says there is a very “establish[ed] and careful” process for bringing refugees into the country. “There are background checks, there are biometric tests to check and see whether anybody shows up an any kind of terrorist or other government watch list. There are medical screenings, there are in-person interviews with the Department of Homeland Security,” Rosen says. [...]

Rosen says the federal government’s process does exactly what the governor wants. “The governor should really be familiar with that process and should understand that the federal government is very carefully vetting any refugees before they are resettled,” Rosen says. “I would still say that we were surprised to hear him express concern with a process that he should really be quite familiar with.” Rosen says the governor is the voice on a lot of issues for Iowans, and his approach in this situation has made concerns over the Syrian refugees worse.

“It is unfortunate that instead of putting out a well-reasoned, common sense message, he instead chose to engage in fear mongering,” Rosen says.

Ali Watkins reported for BuzzFeed on November 18 that a secret government program "is being used to screen incoming refugees, including Syrians."

The program, the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process, or CARRP, was known to be used by the U.S. Customs and Immigrations Service to vet prospective American citizens. The secret agency operation is a rigorous process used to screen immigrants who for a broad variety of reasons are deemed potential national security threats. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union accused the program of disproportionately targeting immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. According to an internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services document provided to Congress by the White House and obtained by BuzzFeed, the administration is also using that program to vet refugees coming into the country.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Swisher (Johnson County) is going out of his way to welcome Syrian refugees "in direct response to Branstad announcement," Mitchell Schmidt reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on November 18.

On Tuesday, Swisher Mayor Christopher Taylor signed a proclamation that reads, in part, that “Swisher continues to welcome all visitors and prospective residents, regardless of national origin or refugee status,” according to a Wednesday news release. [...]

“People find all kinds of creative ways to justify their prejudices, but we need to rise above that,” Taylor said in the release. “These folks have come through a storm, often with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. They want a better life and they want it here. What would it say about us — as a nation, as Iowans, as compassionate human beings — if we were to turn them away?”

As usual, Todd Dorman said it well in his Cedar Rapids Gazette column.

It’s disappointing the longest-serving governor in our history, despite all his experience and wisdom, couldn’t resist chasing the refugees-are-really-terrorists bandwagon. After attacks calculated to spawn overreaction and fear, Branstad joined a chorus of fearful overreaction. The governor of a state with the nation’s oldest mosque wiped his feet on Iowa’s famous welcome mat for fear of looking insufficiently alarmed, or worse yet, soft on Obama. [...]

In the meantime, my advice to refugees who want to come to Iowa is scrape together enough bucks to build a fertilizer plant. It worked for some Egyptians.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Ray Zirkelbach released the following statement:

US Senate Hopeful Zirkelbach Challenges Gov. Branstad’s Fear­Mongering

MONTICELLO, IA–Ray Zirkelbach is a Democrat and past Iowa House Representative from the former 31st District, Monticello, and one of four democratic hopefuls for US Senate in 2016.

Zirkelbach challenges people, particularly Governor Terry Branstad to embrace those fleeing from war torn Syria. "I saw what war looked like first­hand, I saw what drives people to become refugees and leave their countries because there is no hope for their children. I have seen Sudanese refugees whose lives were so bad in their war torn country that they were living in tents in Iraq. What Gov. Branstad is doing is using fear. Fear is easy, compassion is hard, but compassion is what makes Iowans who we are," said Zirkelbach, who served in the in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom in Egypt and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He said he would like to host a Syrian family in Monticello. "Who knows? Maybe one of those children will end up at one of our state colleges or universities. Maybe one of those kids will go on to learn about democracy in our schools and take that back to Syria, to help heal the nation. To use fear as a tool of leadership—that’s not progressive, that’s regressive."

He questions Branstad's exclusion of immigrants, "What are you going to do, stand at the border with a mob and pitchforks? You cannot stop the authentic compassion and humanitarian efforts of our people. If Branstad isn’t going to do it, we’re going to do it ourselves." Zirkelbach looks forward to building a team of Iowans to welcome these refugees and provide security and peace to refugee families in this difficult time.

Known as a champion for civil rights, his progressive, bi­partisan work on clean water legislation, and credited for his transformation of Iowa law that increased funding, protection and rights for veterans, Zirkelbach hopes to continue on that path as a US senator.
Zirkelbach resides in Monticello and is the father of two children, Claire, 9, and Owen, 7. More information will be available at in the upcoming weeks.

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