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Evangelical faith leaders urge SC Gov. Henry McMaster to continue accepting refugees

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Gov. Henry McMaster. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Nearly 100 faith leaders across South Carolina are urging Gov. Henry McMaster to continue accepting people fleeing persecution into the state.

Following President Donald Trump's September executive order, which requires states and localities to provide written consent before refugees can be established, several religious leaders signed off on a letter earlier this month asking the governor to not restrict their ability to "love their global neighbors" through offering asylum.

Pastor Daniel Griswold, who leads three United Methodist Churches in the Ridgeville area, signed the letter to McMaster based upon the pastor's belief that immigrants contribute to the country by working jobs in agriculture and other fields largely ignored by Americans, he said.

“I think it's a Christian duty that we welcome the stranger," he said.

World Relief, a nonprofit organization that works with churches to help refugees, and the Evangelical Immigration Table, a group of faith leaders who advocate for immigration, also sent letters to 14 state governors containing signatures from a total of 2,669 evangelical leaders, who urged the state leaders to provide consent to resettling refugees.

The letter sent to McMaster included 92 signatures from South Carolina evangelical leaders who pointed out the fact that their churches and ministries have been active in serving newly arrived refugees for decades.

McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes, said the governor will continue to review the president’s executive order before making a final decision to "ensure that South Carolinians’ safety and interests are fully protected and recognized before additional refugees are placed here.”

“Governor McMaster knows very well that President Trump understands these decisions are best made at the state and local level, rather than being mandated from Washington," Symmes said.

Trump's order set a Dec. 25 deadline for federal authorities to develop and implement the process of determining whether states and localities have offered consent in writing.

Jenny Yang, vice president of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, said resettlement agencies have been working to get letters to federal officials by Christmas Day.

The president's order cites that close cooperation with state and local governments ensures that refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force.

It adds that the federal government consults with states about resettlement to be respectful of those communities that may not be able to accommodate refugee resettlement.

But Yang said this is part of the Trump administration's efforts to limit the number of refugees coming into the United States.

In September, the president ordered the number of asylum seekers accepted into the U.S. be cut to 18,000, down from the administration's previous refugee ceiling of 30,000. 

Yang, who noted that World Relief has been advocating for a cap of 95,000, pointed to the fact that the nation was founded as a place that welcomed the persecuted.

“We’re seeing a closing of our doors," Yang said. "It’s a shame."

Yang said while the administration may have hoped that U.S. governors would have failed to offer consent, so far, a combined 24 Democratic and Republican governors have provided authorization to continue welcoming the asylum seekers.

In South Carolina, over the past decade, roughly 1,800 individuals from various countries have been resettled in the state, according to World Relief.

The organization reports that many refugees resettled by the U.S. refugee resettlement program are Christians or other religious minorities who were persecuted for their faith. Others were persecuted for their political opposition to authoritarian regimes or because of their ethnicity, the nonprofit said.

In support of resettlement, World Relief noted that refugees are vetted abroad before coming into the U.S., citing that since the Refugee Act of 1980, no refugee resettled to the U.S. has taken a single American life in an act of terrorism.

Additionally, faith and nonprofit leaders said asylum seekers play an important role in the state's economy, and many embrace the dignity of work, a right that was generally denied them in the countries from which they came.

While Trump's executive order permits immediate family members of refugees to enter into a state regardless of whether the governor has offered consent, World Relief leaders say it could disrupt reunification between extended family members.

If South Carolina restricts their resettlement, many will likely exercise their lawful right to simply move to the state immediately after being resettled in another state in order to join their family, nonprofit leaders say. But in doing so, World Relief leaders say refugees will move away from vital employment assistance, language acquisition and cultural adjustment resources offered by their resettlement organization.

Preachers in the Bible Belt region, where conservative Christian views are prominent, supported efforts to welcome those seeking safety.

But Griswold said among his three congregations, which total about 300 members, not all members agreed with the pastor's stance.

This was realized earlier this year during a "hot topic sermon series" when Griswold preached about abortion, immigration, climate change, and human sexuality from a Wesleyan understanding of Scripture.

The biblical story around Jesus' birth highlights the Son of God who flees to Egypt to avoid persecution, Griswold points out. The story, along with biblical mandates to love your neighbor, are well-known by believers, but Grisowld said sometimes political rhetoric often overshadows Scripture.

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Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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