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C CAIR-FL In The News

Sen. Simpson pushes bill to restrict refugee resettlement in Florida

By Jeff Schweers, For Tribune/Naples Daily News Capital Bureau, On 18 January 2016, Read Original
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TALLAHASSEE — Frustrated with how the federal government screens refugees, and fueled by a fearful constituency, state lawmakers want to give the governor and attorney general sweeping powers to keep out anyone they deem to be a risk to the people of Florida.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, are sponsoring measures that would prohibit agencies receiving tax dollars from helping resettle refugees from countries known to harbor groups that want to commit violence against the U.S.

“The federal government does a poor job of that, so it is imperative that the state of Florida set up viable solution,” Simpson said. “I don’t have confidence the federal government is always screening all the folks through the refugee process appropriately. We want to know who is here, where they are and what screening they have.”

The legislation would require agencies that help resettle refugees to provide the names of those people to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for potential further background investigation and could withhold funds from agencies that don’t cooperate.

The measure also would grant the governor police, emergency and military powers to create emergency rules and use whatever means necessary to keep out of Florida any person he has reasonable cause to believe could commit an act of violence.

“This bill makes it crystal clear that the governor and the attorney general can gather and collect information on unknown refugees being brought here,” Simpson said. “Agencies failing to participate in this effort to protect our citizens are subject to suspension in contracts they may have with the State.”

But advocates for immigrants and refugees said the bill feeds into xenophobia fed by rhetoric from presidential candidates including Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and would discriminate against people fleeing for their lives from war-torn countries.

Advocates also said it could have a chilling effect on agencies trying to set them up with housing, food, clothing, medical care, and jobs.

“This bill, which says if you don’t comply we will take your funding away, makes the situation worse,” said Magda Saleh, president of Radiant Hands, a nonprofit social services agency in Tampa that has been helping refugees for the past four months.

Her organization was approached by the refugee services liaison with the state’s Department of Children and Families after other agencies already working to place refugees were overwhelmed by a recent influx.

“These people have been through so much,” Saleh said. “I don’t see where they are going to be a problem.”

The need for resettlement help is huge, she said. Ninety percent of the agency’s work now is dealing with the refugees.

Because the number is increasing, and because the only refugees accepted from Syria now are people with disabilities and severe medical conditions, they require more support and funding, Saleh said.

Each refugee gets $1,125, which is supposed to last three months, she said. The number in a family range from one to 11, with the average around six, all typically living in a three-bedroom apartment, she said.

The money is passed through the Department of Children of Families to agencies throughout the state that provide refugee resettlement assistance. Some $105.5 million has been budgeted for fiscal 2016.

Refugees qualify for every benefit a U.S. citizen qualifies for, including food stamps, Medicaid, job training, and other social services.

By far, the largest group of refugees is Cubans, who made up about 90 percent of the nearly 170,000 refugees who have come to Florida since 2010, according to data tracked by the Department of Children and Families. Nearly 50,000 refugees were relocated to Florida in the last fiscal year.

Haitians are the second largest group, at around 3.5 percent, and Iraqis are third at about 1 percent.

Miami-Dade has the highest share of Florida refugees at 71 percent in the last fiscal year. Hillsborough County was second at 8 percent

“I am not sure if this legislation is targeting all of them or just the people from the Middle East,” said Saleh, whose group is helping people primarily from Arabic-speaking and Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East.

She said she’s concerned the bill would encourage people who might continue recent attacks on local mosques and social workers who help refugees.

“These so-called terrorists are not coming in as refugees,” she said. “Refugees cannot get on a plane from wherever they are until they’ve been screened.”

Middle Eastern refugees undergo more layers of scrutiny than from any other region, said Laila Abdelaziz, government affairs director for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Tampa. The process can take 18-24 months, twice as long as for people from other parts of the world, Abdelaziz said.

But some do slip through the cracks. Two Iraqi refugees arrested last week face trials for comments they made that prosecutors say showed support for the Islamic State or terrorism.

In November, 14 people were killed and 22 were injured in what authorities said was a planned terror attack by a married couple in San Bernardino, California. They were killed in a gun battle and investigators have not linked them to a terrorist organization yet.

Also in November, terrorists attacked locations in Paris, killing 130.

After the Paris attacks, a White House plan to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States came under fire because one of the suspects gained access by posing as a Syrian refugee. Governors from about 20 states, including Florida, wrote letters protesting the placement of Syrians in their state.

Acknowledging the state had no authority to prevent the relocation of refugees by the federal government, Gov. Rick Scott said he would ask Congress to act “aggressively” to prevent President Obama from using federal tax money to place up to 425 Syrians in Florida.

Several members of Congress have proposed legislation to curtail refugee relocation programs.

Ray’s legislation in Florida has been assigned to three committees, with a first stop at the Criminal Justice Subcommittee headed by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. It also has picked up several co-sponsors.

Simpson’s bill has been referred to Judiciary, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and Appropriations.

The preamble to the bills says that because some of those who carried out the 9/11 attacks trained in Florida, the state has been under “imminent threat of the surreptitious invasion of foreign persons intending to conquer or violently destroy the way of life for the citizens of the United States and its constituent states….”

It defines an “invader” as someone who enters the state with the intent of committing violence against people and destroying property, weakening the state or making war with the U.S.

It calls a “restricted person” someone “for whom there is reasonable cause to believe that he or she originates from, or has been in close proximity to, any location in which invaders or prospective invaders are known to originate or organize or train for violent acts of war.”

The measure might not past muster as a state undertaking, said Mark Schlakman, senior program director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University.

“It is highly suspect on constitutional grounds,” Schlakman said. “It potentially violates the separation of powers and the basic tenets of Federalism.”

It also introduces an element of coercion, where any organizations that receive state funding would be subject to sanctions, he said.

Simpson said the legislation is not an attempt to discriminate against Muslims or people from Middle Eastern countries and he will work with his colleagues to adjust the bill’s language so it protects Floridians without sacrificing humanitarian aid.

“I don’t believe the current wording is exactly the way it’s going to be when we are finished,” Simpson said. “We will get this right and we will listen to anyone who has an opinion, obviously. We will listen to our attorneys to make sure that it is constitutional and that the state is in a posture to enforce this bill.”

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How to Sound Off

SB 1712/HB 1095 would create the “Prevention of Acts of War Act,” regulating the relocation of foreign refugees from certain countries known to have groups hostile to the U.S., creating watch lists, granting the Florida Department of Law Enforcement the power to investigate, and authorizing the governor to deny entry.

Sponsors are Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, (850) 487-5018, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; and Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, (850) 717-5012, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.

To learn more

The Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force will hold a public meeting 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Suncoast Hospice, 5771 Roosevelt Blvd., Clearwater. More information is at the website of the state Department of Children and Families.