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Waterford Twp. OKs act to halt Syrian resettlement

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Waterford Township leaders Monday approved a measure to stop participating in a federal resettlement program for Syrian refugees until reforms are in place and security issues addressed.

The Waterford Township board of trustees hear from the public Monday before voting on a resolution involving Syrian refugees.

The board passed a resolution that cited federal authorities testifying before Congress, “that refugees from failed states such as Syria cannot be adequately vetted to ensure that they do not have terrorist ties because the necessary records do not exist.”

The action may be moot. Michigan and other states cannot legally deny refugees entry into a state because the federal government has jurisdiction over refugee placement. But a federal bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would allow local communities to opt out.

Still, board members said they wanted to take a stand. “This is just to notify the other elected officials that this is how we feel right now,” Trustee Anthony Bartolotta said.

The measure also notes the high number of refugees resettling in Michigan, “gaps in communication between federal vendors and local governments and schools prior to the placement,” as well as “significant unfunded financial burdens for receiving states, counties and local communities to provide public assistance to meet refugee needs for schools, law enforcement, housing and health care.”

The resolution calls for the township to “not actively participate in the Refugee Resettlement Program until the program has been significantly reformed, and unit it has been demonstrated that the townships of Oakland County have the capacity to absorb refugees without diverting funds from needy residents or exposing their residents to unwarranted security risks.”

The board stressed the resolution, approved unanimously, is not a ban or based on bias.

“We talked to Homeland Security and law enforcement,” Supervisor Gary Wall said. “When law enforcement agencies say there’s a problem, there’s a red flag that goes up. The bottom line is until we’re sure of this process, we have to protect what’s ours.”

The decision comes amid an influx of immigrants expected in the United States. American communities received 84,995 refugees in fiscal year 2016, the U.S. Department of State said this month. That number is expected to rise to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017.

Between May 2011 and last month, more than 13,785 Syrian refugees entered the country, the State Department said. More than 1,400 have resettled in Michigan, the federal agency reported. Michigan once ranked first among states for receiving Syrian refugees, but California recently surpassed the Great Lakes State for the top spot with more than 1,500.

Most of the refugees in Michigan resettled in Metro Detroit, chiefly in Troy, Dearborn and Clinton Township. Waterford Township officials said state records show that federal officials requested at least 4,060 refugees be settled in Michigan in fiscal year 2016.

Some in the community wondered about the focus on Syrian refugees. Ken Fouty, community outreach coordinator for Samaritas, a social ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said his group has helped place three families there.

“Right now in history, we’re experiencing the largest refugee crisis,” he said, adding that an estimated 60 million are displaced or seeking asylum worldwide.

Refugees face a 13-step vetting process through the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Those from Iraq and Syria are subject to even more stringent background checks.

This month, U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, told the board the Refugee Program Integrity Relocation Act of 2016 “would allow local communities the ability to say that we don’t want Refugees resettled in their community and it would let Congress the ability to set a number and establish the process and conditions as to how Refugees are allowed in.”

Many of the residents and community members who spoke Monday supported the action of the board, citing worries about potential health issues, resources to support refugees and more thorough background checks.

“If they can’t be vetted, there’s no place for them here,” said Ray Brown, a township resident and military veteran.

Others objected to the board’s actions. “It showed some divides that I hoped weren’t there,” said Julia Hanneman-Schoenbach, a resident who attends Christ Lutheran Church.

Dr. Hadi Daia with the Syrian American Rescue Network said noted that many of the refugees his group has helped resettled in the area are professionals who and want to contribute to their new communities. Fears about their status and possible ties to extremism are unfounded, he said. “It’s all built on assumptions.”

The resettlement issue has stoked controversy in the region.

Last month, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said he intended to sue to stop the resettlement of more Syrian refugees in his county. In 2015, after developers in Pontiac attempted to create a community center and affordable housing for refugees, Patterson also sent the city's mayor a letter warning the project could allow Islamic State infiltrators to slip into the community.

Last year, two dozen governors, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, called for halting efforts to open states up to Syrians fleeing their country's civil war after a November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris and bombings in Lebanon. Snyder also asked the federal government to strengthen its security review of refugees.