A measure that would require refugees relocating to South Carolina register with the state has now stalled in a state House panel.
The House Constitutional Laws Subcommittee delayed a vote Thursday on a proposal that would require all refugees coming in to the state enroll with the Department of Social Services, who would then turn over their information to law enforcement for possible tracking. It would also hold their American sponsors liable should any of those refugees commit terrorism or other violent crimes.
The move came after a Thursday hearing dominated by opponents, including Christian resettlement agencies, civil rights groups, and some South Carolina refugees who say the law’s thrust would send a chilling message to refugees.
“Refugees have not come to the U.S. to cause problems for anyone,” said Noor Amiri, a former Afghan interpreter who helped the US military fight the Taliban and was resettled to Columbia for his family’s protection. “We are fleeing violence… We only wish to have a safe place for our children to grow up, where we are not afraid every day we will be kidnapped and murdered.”
Subcommittee member State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, vouched for Amiri and another former Afghan interpreter present at the hearing he only wanted to identify as “Amin,” due to potential safety risk to Amin’s family from the Taliban. Smith, who was deployed to Afghanistan for 16 months, said he served with Amin and vowed to do everything he could to deny passage of the bill.
Smith said the interpreter warned him one day over the radio about an ambush by Taliban militants. “He saved my life without a doubt that day,” the Columbia legislator said, adding he would introduce an “endless line of amendments” to delay a vote should the bill advance any further.
The proposal passed the Senate last month with only six Democrats voting against it. Supporters say they have concerns that terror groups like Islamic State could exploit the massive number of refugees fleeing warn-torn Syria and Iraq, especially as the State Department agrees to resettle larger numbers of refugees than handled in previous years.
The US State Department uses two nonprofit agencies to resettle refugees in South Carolina: Spartanburg-based World Relief and Columbia-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services Carolinas. Representatives from both groups spoke against the Senate bill Thursday, particularly language that would hold them leave them open to lawsuit should a refugee they sponsor ever commit violent crimes in the future.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, offered to water down the liability requirement so that sponsors could only be sued if they “knew or should have known” the refugee was a threat.
Alan Cross, an Alabama Baptist minister who works with churches on immigration ministry, said that change would make the bill more agreeable but that the religious groups involved would still oppose it. “I feel like it’s targeting people who are working with refugees instead of the public safety problem that does exist,” he said.
Delleney questioned why the group’s considered the revised version unreasonable. “I can’t imagine anybody would want to cover for somebody who either knew or should have known that a person was a threat,” he said. “So why is this a problem?”
Cross noted that supporters of the bill were touting the risk of Islamic terrorism, but said 81% of World Relief’s refugees and 75% of those with Lutheran Services in South Carolina are from Christian backgrounds.
The subcommittee adopted Delleney’s proposed change, but held off on advancing the bill. Supporters were stymied by two Republican subcommittee members not being able to stay through more than two hours of testimony. The panel’s two opponents actually outnumbered its only remaining supporter by the time a vote would have come.
State Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry, seemed to wryly nod to this fact when he told reporters after the meeting, “We came here to stall and we were successful.”
No date has been set to take up the bill again. About a month remains in this year’s session before lawmakers adjourn. Gov. Nikki Haley has not stated her position on the bill, but has expressed concerns in the past the potential inability to verify backgrounds in devastated Syria. The daughter of Indian immigrants has been sympathetic to refugees in other instances, however, defending the program that brings Afghan interpreters to the U.S.