Syrian refugees resettle in South Carolina, more planned

Thousands of Syrian refugees walk to cross into Turkey on June 14, 2015. The photo was taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey.

COLUMBIA — Resettlement of Syrian refugees rose in South Carolina last month as part of a national push — despite security concerns raised by officials.

Since mid-June, some 22 refugees from the war-torn Middle Eastern country have resettled in the state, according to the latest available data. The federal government has approved an additional 26 for resettlement, according to Gov. Nikki Haley’s office.

More than 5,000 refugees have resettled nationwide under President Barack Obama’s push to have 10,000 resettled in the country by the end of September.

The growing numbers concern Haley, who last November asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state until receiving assurances that proper security checks were completed.

“We are a compassionate state with a history of welcoming those in need, but the safety and security of South Carolinians is the governor’s highest priority,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in a statement.

While Adams acknowledged the state cannot stop the federal government from sending Syrian refugees to South Carolina, she said Haley has been in contact with FBI Director James Comey and made it clear to Kerry that until refugees from Syria can be properly vetted “it’s not appropriate for them to be sent to South Carolina or any other state.”

Despite a vetting process that can take up to two years, Haley is among 30 other governors have asked the federal government to not resettle Syrians in their states.

Comey, during a congressional committee hearing in October, issued an assurance there was no risk “associated with the resettlement program.” The comments gained significant traction after terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. A Syrian passport, believed to be a fake, was found at the site of one suicide bomber in Paris, sparking worry that attackers were Syrian. Reports have indicated the attackers only traveled to Syria, and ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

States have no authority over who the federal government accepts as refugees or where they are located. South Carolina’s only role is in working with nonprofits in providing federally funded assistance.

Lutheran Services Carolinas resettled the three families, each with minor children, that comprised the 22 resettled individuals, according to the state Department of Social Services. Data from the U.S. Department of State shows the individuals were resettled in Columbia where Lutheran Services has an office. A pair of Syrian refugees was also resettled in the area last December. Lutheran Services Carolinas did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The group is one of two charities authorized to resettle Syrian refugees in the state. DSS director of communications Karen Wingo said the group has not proposed resettlement of Syrians in the state when the new federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Several South Carolina state lawmakers filed anti-refugee bills during the last legislation session, including one by state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, who wanted to register and track all refugees in the state. The bill passed the Senate 39-6 before House Democrats, led by Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, stalled it. Smith, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, helped one of his unit’s translators come to the United States as a refugee.

“This fundamentally offends the notion of who we are as a people and I am just beyond belief that we’d be proceeding,” Smith said during a May hearing.

On the East Coast, the Palmetto State is home to one of the smallest Syrian refugee populations — unlike its northern neighbor North Carolina which has resettled 289 refugees since October. No refugees have been resettled in Delaware, Vermont or the District of Columbia, according to State Department data.