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Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman says her city is also concerned about the safety and well-being of citizens in light of plans by two investment groups Live In Pontiac LLC and Pontiac Community Investment LLC led by Ismael Basha and Malaz Alatassi to create shelters for Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn nation.

Waterman said the political firestorm in southeastern Michigan over the Syrian refugee crisis, fueled in part by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s vehement public opposition to plans to house some of the refugees on properties bought in Pontiac, seems to be “inciting the baser instincts in people.” She said while the refugee crisis raises legitimate concerns about the well-being and safety of citizens in the wake of the recent massacre in Paris, it should not be used for political gain and that Patterson’s jabs in a letter sent to the press were “a bit disingenuous.”

Patterson, in a letter dated Nov. 18, urged Waterman to immediately refrain from supporting any plans to house refugees in Pontiac. The terrorist attacks in Paris, for which the terror group Islamic State took credit, revealed that one of the attackers disguised as a Syrian refugee and gained entry into France.

“While the 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,” Patterson wrote.

During a sit-down interview in her office, Waterman said Patterson’s accusations in the letter were without merit.

“What factually happened is that they (investment group) came and purchased property from Oakland County. Apparently he (Patterson) was not aware of that. We have not sold any city property. It was vacant lots in Pontiac owned by Oakland County. It was handled outside the purview of the city,” Waterman explained. “These are certified landowners. As long as it meets our zoning laws, the city of Pontiac would not stand in their way.”

Waterman added, “We are equally concerned about the safety of our citizens. I think that it was a little patronizing that he would lecture us on that. His facts and his argument were misinformed. We don’t control immigration policy, we don’t dictate to Homeland Security.”

The mayor said Pontiac, a city with 60,000 residents, is “proud of its diverse, cultural, ethnic and religious makeup and we’ve actually found a way to make that an asset of the city.”

She said the 106 properties bought as part of plans to house refugees will now “need community acceptance” because of residents who are rightfully concerned about security.

Oakland County Republican Paul Welday said Patterson’s concerns are legitimate.

“There is little confidence in the vetting process,” Welday said. “We are not against immigrants. The prudent cause of action is to put on pause this plan to house refugees in Pontiac. Though mayor Waterman is entitled to her opinions, Patterson’s responsibility and obligation is to his constituents, (of) which the mayor of Pontiac is just one, but not the only one.”

Christine Sauve, the southeastern Michigan communities coordinator for Welcoming Michigan, a pro-immigration and research advocacy group, disagrees that the vetting process for refugees is lax.

“Rigorous and numerous security clearances are conducted by the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The process takes about two years and sometimes longer,” Sauve said. “America has the advantage of time and distance that European nations trying to process Syrian asylum seekers at land borders don’t have. Since 9/11, the United States has resettled 745,000 refugees and none has ever been arrested on domestic terrorism charges.”

Sauve said Michigan ranks third in the nation in the number of refugee arrivals, following Texas and California, and only 200 Syrian refugees have been admitted in the state since 2011. She said the vast majority of refugees in recent years that have resettled here have been from Iraq.

She added that while the economic impact of refugees in the region has yet to be determined, a recent study found a significant impact in Cleveland, which gets less than a quarter the number of refugees as southeastern Michigan. The study, by the consulting firm CHMURA Economics & Analytics, found that Cleveland in 2012 realized $48 million and 650 jobs created as a result of refugee household spending, refugee-owned businesses and refugee services organizations, among other factors.

“We know that Arab-American employment accounted for $7.7 billion in total earnings in the four counties of the Detroit metropolitan area, generating an estimated $544 million in state tax revenue in 2005, according to the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University,” Sauve said. “Arab-American businesses and consumer spending supported an estimated 141,541 jobs in the four-county region in 2005, according to the same study.”

Stephen Goldman, executive director of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, is working on plans for an exhibit at the museum to showcase what he calls “genocide” taking place in Syria. He strongly supports resettling Syrian refugees in Michigan.

“The idea that we should refuse asylum to persecuted men, women and children, innocent families based on the fear that some individuals with evil intent might find their way into our country, hearkens back to a time 75 years ago when most nations refused entry to Jews escaping persecution and almost certain death at the hands of a despot and his henchmen,” Goldman said. “Let us embrace our American ideal of helping our neighbors and defy the despot to open our arms and borders to those who wish nothing but an opportunity to live without fear.”

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays.

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