Number of refugees coming to Michigan expected to climb

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Michigan is expected to take in more than 5,000 refugees this year, the highest number since 2002, amid renewed concerns about security and the latest effort in Congress to overhaul the U.S. Resettlement Program.

Saad Aziz of Sterling Heights, originally of Baghdad, bakes fresh bread at the Paradise Fruit Market in Troy. The city has passed Dearborn as having Metro Detroit’s second biggest percentage of foreign-born residents, census numbers show.

Since 2002, the earliest year for which U.S. officials say they have reliable state-by-state data, Michigan has resettled between about 500 and 4,500 refugees annually. State social service agencies say they plan to take in about 5,100 this year.

The expected influx comes as intelligence officials warn Islamic State members posing as refugees will likely launch an attack on U.S. soil this year. A bill seeking to cap the number of refugees and strengthen security measures was approved Wednesday by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Advocacy groups insist the fears are overblown, since refugees go through a 13-step vetting process by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies. Refugees from Iraq and Syria are subject to even more stringent background checks.

Critics point to U.S. intelligence officials’ warnings that refugees cannot be properly vetted.

As the debate rages on, two Syrian refugee families are preparing to resettle in Metro Detroit this week. One family is to move to Bloomfield Hills; the other to Dearborn. In Troy, the city with Metro Detroit's second-highest percentage of foreign-born residents, the school district is hosting a ‘Welcome Home’ reception for the new immigrants at Morse Elementary School on March 30.

“In the past, Detroit has had a welcoming spirit, and the melting pot that has been established in our area reflects that,” said Mihaela Mitrofan, program manager of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan’s Refugee Resettlement and Repatriation Services. “We want to continue to keep that spirit going.”

Dick Manasseri of Rochester Hills questioned the decision to bring in more immigrants after U.S. intelligence officials said they expect a terrorist attack this year by extremists posing as refugees.

“The entire country is watching Michigan officials being criticized for not protecting its people from toxic water,” he said. “Could the runaway refuge resettlement program be another case of government officials failing to protect citizens?”

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress last month Islamic State extremists posing as refugees “will probably attempt to ... direct attacks on the U.S. homeland in 2016.”

In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said accepting Syrian refugees escaping their country’s civil war could pose a security threat, adding that security has been stepped up.

“Given the prospect of the terrorist-inspired attack in the homeland, we have intensified our work with state and local law enforcement,” he said. “Almost every day, DHS and the FBI share intelligence and information with Joint Terrorism Task Forces, fusion centers, local police chiefs and sheriffs.”

Changing minds

Mitrofan said the recent warnings have hampered their efforts to convince people refugees aren’t dangerous.

“This has placed us in a situation where we need to talk to more people and continue the advocacy work,” she said. “To generalize the entire refugee population as terrorists is a sad thing.”

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan is working with the city of Troy and the Troy Historical Society to host a potluck dinner to welcome the two new Syrian families: A man and his daughter, who are set to move into a Bloomfield Hills apartment complex, after spending months in a Turkish refugee camp; and a man, wife and child expected to move into Dearborn.

“We had a young female who arrived in December; her father and sister will join her next week,” Mitrofan said of the family moving into the Fox Hills Apartments in Bloomfield Hills.

“In our caseload, we have six or seven families who live in that complex,” Mitrofan said. “There have been no problems; everyone is living in harmony.”

Ida Sims, who has lived in Fox Hills since 2010, said she likes having the refugees as neighbors.

“There have been no issues at all,” she said. “This is a very diverse community. Just in this (section), we have three black families, Syrians, Indian, British. Everyone is very friendly.”

Presumed dangers

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said allowing more refugees into the U.S. is “opening ourselves up for a tragedy.”

“I’m just parroting what (intelligence officials) have said: That they expect terrorists to imbed with refugees and carry out an attack here, and that we can’t vet them.

Troy leaps past Dearborn as immigration hotspot

“I know some people get angry, and they say putting a stop to refugees isn’t the Christian thing to do. But I’ve got a duty to the 1.2 million people in my county to protect them.”

Europe is struggling with what some call a “refugee crisis,” with more than a million migrants and refugees entering the continent last year, compared with 280,000 in 2014.

In addition to riots between Muslim refugees and opposition groups, police in Germany, Austria, Finland, Switzerland and Sweden in recent months have warned women to avoid going out at night, after a series of sexual assaults by Arab and North African refugees.

There have been some problems with refugees in the United States, particularly with Somalians resettling in Minnesota, which has struggled with gangs and violence among the immigrants. But so far in the U.S., there haven’t been as many issues with crime among refugees as there have been in Europe.

Mitrofan said there’s an effort in Michigan to avoid problems by spreading new arrivals out as much as possible.

“We try not to saturate an area,” she said. “But we do want to place them into communities where there are support systems in place. Refugees do well when they’re connected to community resources, and have the opportunity to interact with community members living in their neighborhood. So it’s a balance.”

Impact on Michigan

President Barack Obama has committed to bringing in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, five times the number resettled in the past four years. The administration is so far falling far short of its goal; since October, the U.S. has taken in only 1,141 Syrian refugees. Michigan has taken in the most Syrian refugees during that time, 148.

Michigan has resettled 335 Syrian refugees since the Syrian Civil War began in March, 2011 — also the most in the U.S.

After the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Gov. Rick Snyder said he wanted to stop Syrian refugees from coming to Michigan until they could be properly vetted, although the proclamation was largely symbolic, since local or state governments have no say in how many refugees are resettled in their communities.

The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act (H.R. 4731), which was approved Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, would give state and local governments the power to decide whether to allow refuges to move into their communities.

If passed, the bill also would implement measures to increase security, guard against fraud, and give Congress, not the President, the authority to set the annual refugee ceiling. The bill would cap the number of refugees in the U.S. at 60,000.

Joanne Kelsey, Assistant Director of Advocacy for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, called the proposed legislation “a particularly nefarious bill,” saying it would be “shutting our door to thousands of children and women in desperate need of protection, which is not the American way.”

Manasseri said those who oppose more refugees moving to the U.S. are unfairly painted as racists.

“When our own intelligence officials are saying they can’t vet refugees, and that they expect a terrorist attack to come from the refugee ranks, that’s a problem,” he said. “Why are we talking about bringing even more in?”


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