How Trump Wannabes Across the Country Are Waging a State-by-State Stealth War Against Refugee Rights

Presidential hopeful and renowned racist Donald Trump is not the only public figure calling for refugees to be entered into a registry where they would face further surveillance and degradation just for seeking asylum in the United States.

In two separate states—South Carolina and New York—lawmakers are advancing proposed legislation for such registries, and their efforts are buoyed by the climate of racist and Islamophobic incitement in the wake of the Brussels attacks.

Arguably the more extreme of the proposals, the South Carolina bill was recently passed by the state Senate in a 39-6 vote—with support from some Democrats. If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the legislation will require sponsors to enroll refugees with the Department of Social Services within 30 days of their entry into the state. This list would then be shared with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, layering state-level surveillance on top of an incredibly burdensome federal monitoring and vetting process that includes at least 21 steps and can take years. 

This registry would include extensive personal information, even going so far as to require the “name and contact information of the refugee's employer, if any, all state, local, or federal assistance provided to the refugee, criminal record, and any other information that the department determines to be relevant.”

Law enforcement would then be mandated to “confirm that any refugees placed in South Carolina by the federal government pursuant to the Refugee Resettlement Program do not pose a public safety risk.” This vague provision would open the door to intimidation and policing—and potentially put refugees’ livelihoods in danger by giving law enforcement access to their employers.

While the latest version of the bill does not overtly target individuals fleeing particular countries, such as Iraq and Syria, dog whistle provisions make it clear that people of color and Muslims will be heavily targeted. Among them are the numerous references to ill-defined “terrorism.”

In one of the bill’s most extreme measures, the legislation declares that a refugee’s sponsor shall be “strictly liable to a person” for any “violent crimes” or “terrorist” acts that person might commit—in addition to any “reckless, willful, or grossly negligent” behavior. This provision is a clear scare tactic aimed at penalizing people and organizations lending a helping hand amid the greatest crisis of human displacement since World War II.

The bill further stigmatizes refugees who have already faced a climate of incitement and xenophobia. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley distinguished herself in November as one of the first governors who publicly pledged to ban Syrian refugees from the state in the wake of the Paris attacks, with 30 governors across the country eventually vowing such exclusions. The South Carolina state-level law emerged once it became clear that governors do not, in fact, have the authority to ban refugees admitted by the federal government from crossing their state lines.

Calling the proposed law “grotesque” and “wrongheaded,” Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at the evangelical organization World Relief, told the Washington Post, “I fear this may be the start of similar nationwide legislation.”

South Carolina Senator Kevin Bryant, a Republican from Anderson who is backing the legislation, confirmed this fear, telling AlterNet that he hopes “other states will consider” implementing similar legislation. Speaking with the Associated Press earlier this week, Bryant—who is backing Ted Cruz—was clear about his motives. "We can make South Carolina out of the 50 states the most unwelcome state for refugees," he said.

Bryant could face stiff competition. New York lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would create state agencies to “provide aggregate data to state and local governments on where refugees' points-of-origin and where they are currently residing, along with monitoring them for potential threats under rules to be devised by the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services,” according to a summary by the bill’s backers.

These state agencies would then “fingerprint and perform background checks on refugees,” the summary continues.

In a press statement championing the legislation, its bipartisan supporters sought to frame people fleeing war and poverty as a threat to state residents. "In light of recent tragedies that have unfortunately become more and more of a common occurrence, we need to do everything possible to protect our citizens," Assistant Majority Leader Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) said.

The New York Immigration Coalition, which represents 200 member-based organizations, strongly rejected this logic. “Shame on State Senator Terrence Murphy for introducing such a heinous bill that treats refugees, who are fleeing from violence and conflict, like criminals,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the coalition, in a statement released earlier this month.

In fact, many of those violently uprooted from their homes are fleeing wars that were fueled by U.S. military aggression. Now, the American government is slamming its doors on those people displaced, taking in just 3,000 Syrian refugees over the past five years. The small number of people admitted—a tiny fraction of the nearly 5 million Syrians externally displaced—face a climate of racism and hostility.

Meanwhile, far-right federal lawmakers are seeking to expand the powers of states to crack down on refugees by pushing a draconian bill that would, among other things, allow states and municipalities to reject refugees they disapprove of and further criminalize people fleeing war and poverty.

B. Loewe, spokesperson for the grassroots organization #Not1MoreDeportation, told AlterNet that the spate of anti-refugee laws go hand-in-hand with a nation-wide crackdown targeting immigrants more broadly, including a draconian proposal in Arizona that would dramatically expand state powers to incarcerate and deport people suspected of being undocumented.

“We're seeing the Trump effect at the state level where Trump wannabes in legislatures are coming out of the woodwork with anti-immigrant proposals,” said Loewe. “The politics of intolerance that Trump proposes are spreading nationwide.”


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