A proposed bill that would require refugees in South Carolina register with the state — and could hold their sponsors liable for any violent crimes they commit — has advanced to a state House commiitee. But its future is still uncertain with only a tight, two-week window remaining in this year’s session.
The House Constitutional Laws Subcommittee advanced the measure in a 2-2 vote Thursday. The panel’s two Republicans supported the bill, while two Democratic members opposed (one Republican was not able to attend the meeting). House rules do not require a majority to move legislation on to the full Judiciary Committee, but the vote means it lacks the “favorable report” designation that most legislation receives when it clears subcommittee.
S.997, which passed the Senate overwhelmingly earlier this year, would require all refugees coming into 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 if a refugee commits a violent crime and those sponsors either knew or “should have known” about the risk.
“It’s about accountability and due diligence on the part of the sponsors,” State Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said. “If you knew or should have known that a person was a threat and they did carry out acts of terrorism or violent crime, you should be held liable.”
The version advanced Thursday is different than what the Senate passed in March by a 35-6 vote. The Senate version sets a strict liability requirement for sponsors whether they knew of the risk or not.
But opponents say the bill is searching for a problem that doesn’t exist. State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said no refugee in South Carolina has ever been accused of terror-related charges. “By passing this bill, it offends the relationships we need to build with the Muslim community,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “Those are going to be the first that will hear of a terrorist attack that is coming through Islamic extremists in that community.”
Smith said targeting refugees “offends all of the best notions about who we are as a people.”
The measure heads to the full Judiciary Committee next. Since the House is on furlough next week, supporters will likely only have two weeks to get it onto the House floor and passed to the Senate before the regular session expires at month’s end.
Lead sponsor State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said he’s not sure if the Senate will agree with easing liability requirements, saying it would create “wiggle room” for sponsors if there ever was a violent incident.
“I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it may be one of those things we agree with if it’s the best we can get,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.
Smith said he will do everything in his power to block the bill from advancing past the House. The National Guard major has sponsored a former Afghan interpreter who helped his unit in Afghanistan and afterwards fled to South Carolina. Smith said he also hopes to sponsor a second interpreter who fled the war-torn country and is now stuck in Austria.
“The refugees that I call my brothers… spent a decade in combat fighting alongside American soldiers,” he said. “They’ve done more to earn privileges of this great country and this state than Sen. Lee Bright has ever thought of doing.”
The House Judiciary Committee next meets on May 17.