Syrian refugee policy provokes conservative debate in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY – If recent measures of public opinion are accurate, it seems most Republican conservatives in Oklahoma lean strongly against admitting refugees fleeing from the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist entities. However, there are some dissenting voices indicating deep sympathy for the thousands trying to escape the “caliphate” established by the group also known as IS (Islamic State) or ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant).

U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, is one of the best-known among conservatives nationwide calling for policymakers to find a way to assist in refugee resettlement.

Governor Mary Fallin last week applauded U.S. House Republican leaders for drafting and passing legislation to halt President Barack Obama’s plan to accept thousands of refugees from Syria.

“There is a legitimate public safety concern and more oversight is needed of the refugee program,” said Fallin, who has demanded that the president suspend accepting Syrian refugees into the United States after last week’s terror attacks in Paris. “This is a federal program and states lack any authority to deny refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions.”

Fallin said that although federal policy is controlling in the matter, she agreed with critics of the Obama administration’s plans for refugee resettlement. She believes the Obama administration should suspend accepting Syrian refugees until safeguards are in place to make sure the refugees are not terrorists intending to harm the American people. 

Getting accurate background information on people coming from that part of the world is quite limited, a press release from the chief executive’s staff contended.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt have also called on the Obama administration to halt receiving Syrian refugees until the federal government can assure the public their vetting process is effective.

Supporting suspension of refugee resettlement were several legislators.

“We applaud Governor Fallin in her efforts to stop the influx of Syrian refugees into the United State and into the state of Oklahoma.” said state Rep. Casey Murdock “We should continue efforts by suspending all state agencies in assisting in the resettlement of additional refugees.”

State Rep. Sean Roberts commented, “States should unify on this movement. The tragic events going on across our world are disheartening. We should assist, but this is not the way. If one state allows the resettlement of refugees, they can continue to cross state lines with no true discourse.”

State Rep. Josh Cockroft (R-Wanette) offered a nuanced view of the issue, saying in a statement:

“As a state lawmaker, I believe it is our state and nation’s responsibility to ensure the protection and freedoms of every person within our borders. This should require firm opposition to all attempts of refugee placement in all states until a proper vetting process is established. It is a proven fact the current intelligence and security databases used to screen refugees are incomplete and the countries they come from are unreliable at best. We cannot accept anything less than complete protection for the American people. …

“Ultimately, the decision by many states to not receive any refugees will be met with a long legal battle between the federal and state governments. While states must abide by federal immigration and international policy as set forward in the Constitution, states can refuse to aid in that process through use of state funds and resources. President Obama and the federal government do have explicit statutory authority to accept foreign refugees under the Refugee Act 1980.”

Cockroft added, “As an Oklahoman, and more importantly as a Christian, I believe we should also reevaluate how we approach this national crisis as individuals. The reality is not every refugee brings with them harmful intentions. In fact, many of them are fleeing terrorism and all ISIS and Al Qaeda stands for. In the past, Oklahomans have been a shining example to all the world in caring for the ‘least among us.’ My prayer as we move forward is that some of our current views and roles would be reversed, no matter what happens within the federal or state government.”

As for Congressman Russell, in a floor speech he denounced the rhetoric of some Republicans in Congress who have assailed virtually all refugee resettlement efforts. He voted against the House GOP resolution in the first round, leaving that measure short of a “veto-proof” margin which House leaders wanted.

However, after discussing the matter with House leaders, Russell backed the measure hours later.

He was promised “a seat at the table” in crafting a final version of the GOP measure.

Russell sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before the recent IS attacks on Paris, requesting detailed information on refugee screening. 

He urged Kerry “to protect religious minorities, including the Syrian and Chaldean Christians and Yazidis who have reportedly been denied visas. 

We must continue to look for a secure way to rescue those running from savagery and barbarity and pray for those who have been harmed by ISIS.”

Russell has been candid about the issue, saying, “As ISIS exploits local populations and creates a humanitarian crisis across Iraq and Syria, it is difficult not to help all in need.” He told Alex Cameron, reporter for News9 (CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City), “I was very torn on this issue,” Russell said. “I cast a ‘no’ vote” initially, “because I just felt we were going down the wrong path.”

Conservative blogger David van Risseghem, who runs the Sooner Politics website and is based in the Tulsa area, commented early in the debate within the state.

He wrote on his website and on Facebook: “I’m just one voter… but as for my Christian convictions, I must be kind to the refugee. That does not mean I must be gullible. But a truly exiled refugee seeking to live among my people should be afforded the compassion of acceptance.”

Citing the Bible, Risseghem said to readers, “If you have a disagreement with God’s Word, I guess we’ll just have to disagree.”

He added in a later post, “I would love to get to meet some of those Syrian Christians who survived the Caliphate. They have as many stories to tell as the Jews who survived Germany of the 1930s. 

Would Oklahoma have rejected Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a refugee?”

Note: This report was compiled by the editor, from multiple press releases.