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Florida Bill Would Pull State Out Of Federal Refugee Resettlement Program

Dima Vitanova

Florida is the largest recipient of refugees in the U.S, welcoming more than 62,000 refugees last year. That’s according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. 

The vast majority of refugees came from Cuba and Haiti, while close to 3,000 arrived through the federal refugee resettlement program from conflict-plagued countries like Burma, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

But those numbers could fall, under federal and state policies in the works. President Donald Trump’s executive order on March 6 would cap refugee admittance nationwide at 50,000 a year, a reduction from President Obama’s 110,000 target.

And a bill moving through the Florida House of Representatives would withdraw the state from the federal refugee program. Sponsored by Rep. David Santiago (R-Deltona), the Refugee Assistance Programs bill stems from concerns over purportedly lax refugee vetting.

On Feb. 16, the bill passed the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee with a favorable vote of 9 to 5.

During the discussion, Santiago said his proposed legislation would give Florida a stronger voice in who gets to come to the state.

“The state of Florida has continuously attempted to work with the feds to improve the [federal refugee] program, to ensure that refugees that are being placed in the state of Florida are identified, cleared and background checked where we feel comfortable before they come to the state of Florida,” Santiago said.

Wariness about federal refugee policy spiked after the Paris attacks of November 2015, when one of the perpetrators allegedly entered France posing as a Syrian refugee. At the time, Florida Gov. Rick Scott quickly indicated the state’s opposition to accepting Syrian refugees. States, however, have no authority to prevent the federal relocation of refugees on their territories.

In 2016, the State Department resettled over 600 Syrian refugees in Florida. They underwent screening procedures that are more extensive and stringent than for other nationalities. Despite the slew of refugee background and security checks that can take up to two years, some lawmakers question the capabilities of federal agencies to vet rigorously.

“I am not waiting for something to happen before I act,” Santiago said in the February meeting. “This is a proactive move to fix areas that have been clearly identified by experts on many levels that the program has its flaws.”

Not everyone, though, finds the vetting program insufficient. Travis Trice, church mobilizer at World Relief Jacksonville refugee resettlement office, said refugees are the most thoroughly screened travelers to the U.S.

“Some people would compare it to torture,” Trice said. “I have heard one lady, she said, ‘It was like being tortured.’ Not physically, but, of course, the process is long, it is intimidating. There are even parts of the vetting process that they do not tell us on purpose. There is sufficient vetting.”

And pulling Florida out of the federal refugee program may not make the state more secure because it would not constitute a ban on refugee relocation to the state. It would only halt Florida’s involvement in funneling federal funds to local resettlement agencies, which in the last fiscal year amounted to more than $250 million.

And while state aid for those efforts would likely dry up, federal funds would not necessarily be lost. A nonprofit agency could assume Florida’s role as financial intermediary between the federal government and resettlement offices.

If House Bill 427 passes Florida would follow a dozen other states that have already exited the federal refugee program.  It’s currently in the House Health and Human Services Committee and has no companion bill in the Senate.