House members work to delay decision on refugee registry bill

A Syrian refugee carries her child as she heads back to her tent through muddy, slippery ground during a rainfall at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan in March.

COLUMBIA — Blocking a bill that would require refugees to register with the state is personal for a Columbia lawmaker who serves as a sponsor for the man who saved his life in Afghanistan.

“I will put up thousands and thousands of amendments to make sure this bill doesn’t pass the House before (the last day of session),” Democratic Rep. James Smith said Thursday.

Smith, who served in the S.C. Army National Guard, said his interpreter — whom he declined to identify out of security concerns — saved his life in Afghanistan by notifying him of radio chatter from Taliban members, who planned to ambush him.

It took five-and-a-half years for his interpreter’s refugee resettlement to be approved.

Smith said tracking and investigating people like his former interpreter, who often are fleeing war in their home countries and have committed no crimes, is offensive.

Smith was part of a panel Thursday who heard testimony from more than 20 people who spoke against the bill, most of them from the church community. No one spoke in favor of the legislation, which would place refugees who are resettled in South Carolina on a registry with the S.C. Department of Social Services and require they be tracked by the State Law Enforcement Division.

Lawmakers amended the bill to make it so that civil legal liability is only applied for a sponsor if the group knew, or should have known, a refugee resettled through their organization posed a threat and committed an act of terrorism or a violent crime. To be held liable, there would have to be clear and convincing evidence presented in court.

Smith said he appreciated the effort by subcommittee members to make the bill more palatable, but still opposed it overall.

“When you build upon a pile of garbage, you’ve still got a pile of garbage,” he said. “There’s no way to fix it when it’s foundation is a load of crap.”

Previously the bill did not call for the high standard to prove civil liability.

Alan Cross, who works with immigrant support agency Evangelical Immigration Table, said creating liability infringes on the religious rights of the mostly Christian groups who help resettle refugees.

“The Bible commands us to minister to the sojourner, to the immigrant, to refugees, to care for the poor, and many who are working with refugees are doing that out of their religious devotion and out of worship for God,” he said. “And to have a potential for being sued or being held civilly liable for the work that they do if a refugee does something that is beyond their control, it’s something that concerns hundreds of pastors throughout the state.”

The panel did not vote on the bill, but members said they expect there will be another hearing.

“We came here to stall it and we were successful,” said Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.