South Carolina Counties Say Send Us Your Huddled Masses…But Not Syrian Refugees

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November 10, 2015; Daily Beast

In some counties of South Carolina, we’ll bet there are few Syrian immigrants or refugees, or maybe none. That lack of exposure to Syrians hasn’t stopped Berkeley County, in the metropolitan area that includes Charleston and North Charleston, from approving a resolution opposing the Obama administration’s Refugee Resettlement Program, which could allow as many as 10,000 or 11,000 Syrian refugees into the country next year.

The County’s resolution was proposed by Jennifer Ort, a member of a group called Concerned Voters of Berkeley County, who described the potential Syrian refugee resettlement as “like leaving your door unlocked in a bad neighborhood.”

“Call me what you want to call me, you’re not going to hurt my feelings,” said Council member Tommy Newell, who introduced the resolution against the possibility that a Syrian might be moved to the area. “I have to look into the eyes of my eight-year-old daughter and know that when I lay my head down at night, I’ve done everything I can to keep her protected from any kind of evil that I can.”

Newell’s concern appears to be, shall we say, prophylactic. Expressing his opposition to the Berkeley County resolution, state representative Bakari Sellers explained that there aren’t any Syrian refugees in the entire state. Last month, Rev. Jason Lee, the head of the Spartanburg chapter of World Relief, explained that no Syrians were scheduled to be moved to the county. Since 2000, the entire state has accepted a total of 1,700 legal refugees.

Noting that Daniel Island, South Carolina, somehow appeared on an ISIS “kill list,” Newell added, “you have to take care of your own before you take care of somebody else,” suggesting that Berkeley County’s homeless population deserved help before Syrian refugees should be considered.

While Councilman Newell expressed concerned that his eight-year-old child might be attacked at school by Syrian refugees, others took pains to suggest that Newell’s and Ort’s hostility toward Syrian refugees shouldn’t be seen as a sentiment of South Carolinians overall.

The views of the Berkeley County Council don’t represent the views of South Carolinians, or Republicans even,” Omar Hossino of the Syrian American Council pointed out. “Lindsey Graham has been one of the strongest advocates in the U.S. Senate for Syrian refugees… Syrian refugees must be vetted to the full extent, but for people to say they want to kick these people out because they’re ISIS when they’re actually fleeing ISIS…It’s very odd.”

On the other hand, Berkeley County isn’t the only South Carolina county to pass a resolution against resettling Syrian refugees. It was preceded by the Pickens County council, home of Clemson University, and reportedly the county council in Greenville plans to take up a similar resolution.

Technically, these county resolutions have no legal effect on the ability of the federal government to proceed with the resettlement of Syrian refugees, but earlier this year, in a meeting in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard said that the State Department “won’t send Syrian refugees into a community that is hostile to them,” according to Ron Barnett of the Greenville News.

Richard’s statement makes clear why these apparently silly county resolutions aren’t so silly at all. When people like Ort and Newell, who may not reflect the attitudes of all the residents of their county, are able to get a resolution passed that might convince the federal government from considering an entire geography for otherwise legal refugee resettlement, it should be a signal to nonprofits that they have to monitor and challenge actions like this. Otherwise, people like Ort and Newell don’t just embarrass their home communities and states, they send a signal to other communities that a couple of local activists can deprive legal refugees of resettlement opportunities anywhere in the country just be passing an otherwise non-binding government resolution.—Rick Cohen

Correction: Berkeley County is adjacent to Charleston County, where Charleston sits, but neither North Charleston nor Charleston are properly part of it.