A Syrian Refugee Debate Roils Tiny Rhode Island

Rhode Island Republicans are demanding everything from tougher vetting for Syrian refugees, to local and state control over which of the refugees would be admitted, to setting up refugee camps to keep Syrians away from the general population.

The only disagreement in the GOP ranks seems to be the same that would separate debating judges at a gymnastics competition — the degree of difficulty.

But Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) said if the federal government comes knocking at Rhode Island’s door with a truckload of Syrians, she’ll welcome them with open arms.

“Right now people are acting with some hysteria and fear, and I appreciate the fear, and my primary job is to keep the people of Rhode Island safe, but my thing is, let’s just calm down,” Raimondo told WPRO-AM. “This is a federal issue.”

Gov. Raimondo issued a statement Nov. 19 in which the Democrat said she understood why Rhode Island residents might be unwilling to welcome Syrian refugees to their neighborhoods following the ISIS attacks in Paris.

“But at the same time as we focus on our security, we must not lose sight that there are families desperately fleeing oppression and terrorism,” she said. “We cannot let fear dictate our actions or make us lose sight of the people struggling at the very heart of this. This whole discussion needs more humanity, more peace.”

Raimondo said she had confidence the Obama administration’s plans for a two-year refugee screening process would be adequate and promised “if the federal government asks Rhode Island to host refugees fleeing violence and terror in Syria or anywhere else, we will welcome them with compassion – as we always have.”

Raimondo also pointed out that as far as she is concerned, the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. is a “federal issue.”

Republicans in the state House sounded insulted that Raimondo felt she had to remind them of federal law and were definitely outraged that she referred to Rhode Islanders’ fear of Syrian refugees as “hysteria.”

“There isn’t any hysteria and there is nothing hypothetical about the tragedy of the Paris attacks and the Boston Marathon at the hands of the Tsarnaev brothers. We must be cognizant of the fact that ISIS has a list of potential targets that include Newport, R.I.,” said Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R).

“This isn’t about turning our backs on people in need. This is about proving that the vetting process of refugees seeking asylum is ironclad,” he said. “That has not been done. Sadly, we have tragedies to prove this point.”

Nardolillo’s response to Gov. Raimondo’s acceptance of Syrians was lukewarm compared to a blowtorch email from state Sen. Elaine Morgan (R) to one of her constituents.

Even though she admitted it did seem a bit “barbaric,” Morgan wrote that any Syrians that do come into Rhode Island should be put into refugee camps to keep them away from the rest of the state’s population.

“I do not want our governor bringing in any Syrian refugees. I think our country is under attack. I think this is a major plan by these countries to spread out their people to attack all non-Muslim persons,” WPRI-TV reported she wrote in the email. “The Muslim religion and philosophy is to murder, rape, and decapitate anyone who is a non-Muslim.”

Morgan backed off from that just a bit, a day later. The Republican said she only meant to describe the “fanatical Muslim religion and philosophy.”

It isn’t only Rhode Island Republicans who are calling for a hard line being drawn in the sand on the Syrian refugee issue.

One of Raimondo’s fellow Democrats, Congressman Jim Langevin, doesn’t want to completely block Syrian refugee access to the United States. But he said it is necessary to be extremely careful about who is let into America. And he does not see toughening the admission bureaucracy as placing an unfair burden on the Syrians.

Langevin was one of the 47 Democrats who voted in favor of the legislation to add a requirement of cabinet-level certification for Syrian refugees, along with the normal vetting process in place for all refugees.

“I read the legislation,” he told NBC News 10 in Providence, R.I. “I didn’t see anything onerous in there. It doesn’t shut down the program. It should be additional checks and balances to make sure that any refugee coming to the United States is fully vetted.”

The other member of the Rhode Island U.S. House delegation, Democrat David Cicilline, came down on the side of President Obama and Gov. Raimondo.

“We cannot allow the terrorists to change the character of our nation,” Rep. Cicilline told NBC News 10. “If they do, they win.”