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Refugee Groups Scramble to Defend Syrian Resettlement

Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a press conference of interfaith activists appealing to the Obama administration to accept more Syrian refugees in September. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images file photo)

Days after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, a handful of American nonprofit organizations, most of them Christian-affiliated, have suddenly found their work at the center of America's latest political fight.  

There's a growing list of politicians  who have taken aim at the United States' refugee vetting process, with more than half of the country's governors speaking out about resettling Syrians in their states.  

The organizations responsible for resettling Syrian refugees in the United States say they have been shocked by how much support for Syrian refugee resettlement has evaporated since Nov. 13.  

"This is unprecedented, really," Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CQ Roll Call Monday.  

"Up until this past weekend, we even had politicians reaching out to say, 'How can we resettle refugees?' Members of both parties. Of both chambers," Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Services, told CQ Roll Call Tuesday. Church World Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are two of the nine organizations that work with the State Department to resettle refugees across the United States.  

It's a public-private partnership that's little understood, but it explains how Syrians — or refugees of any other nationality for that matter — end up scattered across the United States, from Santa Ana, Calif., to Portland, Maine.  

When representatives from the nine organizations meet weekly to allocate refugees among their local affiliates, one of their first considerations is family ties. If an incoming refugee has a family member in a particular community, there's an effort to send him or her to the same place in America.  

But there are other factors that explain the seemingly random placement of South Sudanese in, for example, Minnesota. Or Somalians in Ohio. One is cost of living. Another is the unemployment rate.  

"I don’t know if they appreciate the cold, but they appreciate having a job and being safe," World Relief's Matthew Soerens told CQ Roll Call Monday, referring to refugees settled in Minnesota.  Settled refugees must be self-sufficient within 90 days, he said, so the priority is on placing them where they can get a job. "Especially," Soerens added, where there are jobs that "someone without English skills could do." Local communities and the resettling organizations talk, said Lavinia Limon, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which is headquartered in Arlington, Va., but has 34 affiliates around the country. If a resettlement town loses several factories, for example, the groups would look at diverting refugees elsewhere.  

"We certainly want to be responsive to any local issues, but they don’t have veto power," Limon said of states whose governors are trying to refuse Syrians. "They can’t say 'no more.'" For the most part, American communities have been overwhelmingly welcoming, representatives from the resettlement groups agreed.  

"Up until today, we haven’t experienced any negativity. Other than that which we sometimes get anyway," Limon said, pointing to isolated hateful phone calls her organization had received in the past and some of the xenophobic rhetoric coming from right-wing blogs.  

But that's no longer Limon's biggest concern.  

"We’re a lot more concerned about elected officials and painting a whole nationality as terrorists," she said.  

"I think it’s fear-based," Limon said of politicians calling for a halt to the settlement of Syrian refugees. "I think they woke up this morning and thought, 'What can I do to keep my population safe?'"  

On a media call Tuesday, representatives from three of the resettlement organizations argued that the vetting process is already secure and much different from Europe's.  

"Someone arriving in France with a Syrian passport is leaps and bounds different from someone [who's gone through] the restrictive U.S. refugee resettlement program," Smyers told CQ Roll Call.  

Just getting to the United States takes an average of two years, Limon said, noting that there's consistent security screening throughout that time, and that there are much easier ways for would-be terrorists to enter the country. Tourist visas, for one.  

"Sometimes I wonder whether all tourists had to wait two years," Limon mused, "whether the hotel industry would have something to say about that."  

Refugees, she added, have no comparable economic or lobbying power.  

Each of the the nine resettlement organizations has one or two staff members dedicated to policy and advocacy work.  

"To be fairly honest, we are in emergency mode," said Smyers, who fills that role for Church World Services in Washington, D.C.  

In the days and weeks ahead, the groups will be trying to get ahead of  the calls for a "pause" in Syrian refugee resettlement with their own informational offensive.  

"We’ve been in constant conversations with folks on the Hill who have questions about security screenings. [We] provide background about how rigorous those screenings are and help alleviate fears," Smyers said, noting that her organization has spoken with lawmakers from both parties since the Paris attacks.  

Education is perhaps the primary tool at these organizations' disposal.  

"I think what we’re trying to do is lift up the stories of Syrian refugees who have already settled here in the United States," said Will Haney, associate director of external affairs for the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Services.  

And history, as many defenders of accepting Syrian refugees have pointed out, is a big part of that conversation.  

Limon's group, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, has been around for more than a century. It and many similar groups got their start with refugees from eastern and southern Europe around the turn of the century — a time when refugees from that area faced similarly discriminatory rhetoric.  

"This is sort of a pattern that the U.S. goes through," Limon said. "And as we see — it always surprises me that people don’t have faith in our country — they are making great contributions to our country," she said. Related: