Patterson to Pontiac: Don’t take Syrian refugees

Candice Williams, and Mark Hicks

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson warned Pontiac’s mayor Wednesday that a city project to house Syrian refugees could allow Islamic State infiltrators to slip into the community.

“I am dismayed by Pontiac’s agreement to develop a ‘Syrian Refugee Village’ within its borders,” Patterson wrote in a letter to Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman. “Pontiac is the county seat for Oakland County and thus a focal point. Any program such as the acceptance of refugees from Syria under current conditions constitutes an immediate threat of imminent danger.”

Pontiac City Administrator Joseph Sobota referred a call for comment Wednesday to Waterman, who he said has spoken publicly before about concerns about the development. Waterman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The developers of the project, which would create a community center and affordable housing at Franklin and Square Lake roads, said they were surprised and saddened by Patterson’s letter. They said the housing will not be exclusive to Syrian refugees.

“I think the statement (Patterson) sent out is very harsh in its words,” said Malaz Alatassi. “I think it is not fair to keep blaming the victims. I see the people who want to come here and want to migrate for a better life. We should allow them to do so.”

Patterson’s letter comes days after about two dozen governors, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, called for halting efforts to open states up to Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war. The Paris killings and bombings in Lebanon last week prompted Snyder to ask the federal government to first strengthen its security reviews of refugees. Michigan and other states can not legally deny refugees entrance into a state because the federal government has jurisdiction over refugee placement.

The calls for scrutiny came after news one of the Islamic State extremists who staged last week’s attacks may have entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee.

President Barack Obama has vowed to veto a proposal that would sharply tighten screening of refugees from Syria and Iraq, according to the White House.

In his letter, Patterson goes on to say that he is not overreacting to the Paris killings. The attacks left 129 people dead and more than 350 wounded, 99 of them seriously.

“I am pointing out that lax immigration policies contributed to this terror,” Patterson wrote. “While Syrian Refugee Village may have been a well-intentioned program initially, can you or your partners from Live in Pontiac, LLC ... give the residents of Pontiac absolute assurance that the refugees they intend to house in their ‘community’ would not contain one or two ISIS infiltrators? Of course you can’t. Therein lies the risk.”

Dr. Muzammil Ahmed, board chairman with the Michigan Muslim Community Council, which unites Muslim group efforts across the region, called Patterson’s position “shortsighted and (a) knee-jerk reaction” to the events in Paris and other current events.

“He doesn’t appear to have an understanding of what is happening in Syria because these people are fleeing ISIS and they are victims of ISIS. Just because they’re Syrians, it doesn’t make them terrorists,” he said. “This kind of rhetoric just inflames these sorts of misperceptions and will make it more likely for stereotypes and bigotry to occur.

“We all strongly feel that we need to maintain security for our own families here in Michigan and America. We appreciate the fact that he has that security high in his mind, but unfortunately making blanket generalizations such as the ones that he’s made really casts suspicion over a whole ethnic group and a whole religion.”

Ismael Basha of Life in Pontiac said Patterson has never met with his group to discuss the plans for the project.

Basha said he does not know where the name ‘Syrian Refugee Village’ came from. Last year, the group bought a former school building, and several months ago purchased 120 lots surrounding it. So far, Basha and Alatassi said they’ve invested $1.6 million and have talked to builders and engineers.

“There are areas of Pontiac that are in need of help,” Basha said. “Adjacent to Bloomfield Hills you can buy an entire city block in Pontiac. It was a no-brainer to make an effort to clean up neighborhoods adjacent to Bloomfield Hills ... There are refugees that are here that need lots of help. We thought this would be a win-win for everyone.”

Oakland County has had 78 Syrian refugees placed in the county since January 2014, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System. There are 66 in Troy, seven in Farmington Hills and five in West Bloomfield.

“It alarms me because it is something the federal government does that it doesn’t publicize,” Patterson told The Detroit News on Wednesday. “However, they are coming through a very stiff turnstile, one at a time. This won’t be like the truckloads that Obama wants to bring in. I can’t believe he is that naïve.”

Iman Abdulrazzak, director of the Michigan Muslim Community Council’s Syrian refugee task force that helps area groups coordinate efforts to resettle immigrants, said the new arrivals shouldn’t be confused with recent ones in Europe.

“The refugees that are coming are actually people who have been going through the resettlement process already or have applied and have been waiting for acceptance into the U.S. for years — way before we were even concerned about ISIS or ISIS was a major threat,” she said. “It takes several years to get here, so these aren’t people who just decided yesterday to leave Syria. And even if they were people who were new, Muslims generally are the primary victims of ISIS.”

Patterson said he believes his letter will stop Pontiac’s plans for a while.

Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner on Wednesday issued a statement expressing the need for a review of current policy for vetting refugees from every country in light of recent events. He was, however, critical of Patterson’s letter.

“Mr. Patterson’s comments politicize a project that will bring much-needed economic development to Pontiac and provide housing for people desperately in need who have undergone exhaustive background checks,” Meisner wrote. “Please remember that Oakland County is made up of many thousands of Americans born in other countries, including many where terrible things happened, and that they are contributing greatly to Oakland County’s prosperity and security every day.”

Since housing is “absolutely essential” for the refugees’ path to independence and stability, Abdulrazzak said, “if Pontiac gives in to this, then it would set back the refugees tremendously.”

The move could also affect their adjustment in other ways. “These Syrian refugees coming here are just exhausted. .... But now they’re coming here and the rhetoric is very demonizing and it’s very alienating,” Abdulrazzak said. “And when you’re trying to integrate positively within a new country and a new city and the difficulties that come with that, the last thing you want is also suspicion that you might have ill will toward your new neighbors.”

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Bloomberg News contributed