Fear of Syrian Refugees Inflames Louisiana Politics
NEW ORLEANS — Fear of Syrian refugees has inflamed the final days of the already bitterly contested Louisiana gubernatorial race. Both candidates — Republican Sen. David Vitter and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards — have echoed current Gov. Bobby Jindal’s position that after the Islamic State atrocities in Paris, no more refugees should be sent here, and have attacked each other as too soft on the issue.
Of the six identified attackers, five are French or Belgian nationals, and the nationality of two others isn’t yet known. A fake Syrian passport found outside the Stade de France, near the body of one of the suicide bombers, bears the name of a dead Syrian loyalist fighter in Bashar Assad’s army.
Just 14 Syrians have come to Louisiana since January, according to the State Department. Associated Catholic Charities of New Orleans, which works on resettling refugees from war-torn countries, expects an additional 25 people in the coming year, “many of them likely to be Syrians,” according to a statement.
Before the attacks in Paris, the U.S. had agreed to take 10,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war, many of whom are fleeing the violence of the Islamic State.
Edwards had a 20-point lead as of a poll last week, largely due to a 2007 prostitution scandal that has dogged Vitter. But the race is expected to tighten in the final days as Vitter fights back. The election is Saturday.
Vitter has attacked Edwards, a self-described “pro-life and pro-gun” Democrat, for joining President Barack Obama in offering a welcome mat to Syrians. “He does it every time,” a Vitter robocall says of Edwards, in relation to Obama.
Edwards responded with statements and a robo-call affirming his opposition to resettling Syrians since the Nov. 13 terrorist assaults in Paris.
His wife Donna Edwards, a school teacher, reminded Louisianans in a robo-call of her husband’s military background.
“When my husband John Bel Edwards, graduated from West Point and served in the 82nd airborne as an Army ranger, my family felt good knowing he was working hard every day to keep us safe. On Saturday, John Bel called for a complete stop of entry of Syrian refugees into Louisiana. Since then he’s been in constant contact with the Louisiana State Police. David Vitter skipped three committee hearings about Syrian refugees. Even though he doesn’t show for work, he found time to cut a commercial. Lying about John Bel’s record on the issues; that’s shameful. Whom do you trust on your family’s safety, John Bel Edwards … or David Vitter, who’s been AWOL?”
Three of the six representatives who represent Louisiana — Ralph Abraham, Charles Boustany Jr. and Garret Graves — are Arab-Americans of Lebanese descent, listed on the Arab American Leadership Council Political Action Committee website, and Republican co-sponsors of a bill to suspend the administration’s plan for resettlement of Syrians.
Graves, elected last year in a district that includes much of Baton Rouge, said in a statement that an alleged inability “to properly vet these victims as they come across our border is an absolute failure on the Departments of State and Homeland Security and a disservice to the refugees of Syria. … Not a single Syrian refugee should be allowed in this country and into Louisiana without us knowing the full extent of his or her background and associations.”
The only violence here that could be considered terrorism happened last summer in Lafayette, when a white supremacist opened fire in a movie theatre where he killed three people and wounded seven more before killing himself.
Second-generation Syrian-American Joseph A. Atiyeh, 29, a graduate of Loyola Law School and a corporate attorney with Baker Donelson in New Orleans, said he understands those who don’t want any more refugees settled here.
“It’s a very tough question,’’ said Atiyeh, who grew up in Baton Rouge, where his father, Joseph, who left Syria as a child, settled after going to LSU on scholarship as a wrestler. By virtue of his birth, Joe Atiyeh — after missing the cut for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team — was able to compete for Syria and won a silver medal.
“You feel for the true refugees being displaced as a result of barbaric situation in Syria and Iraq,’’ he said. “But at the same time, there’s a serious risk of bad guys sneaking in. We’re a country of immigrants, and we have a history of being there for refugees from war-torn countries; but at same time our leaders have an obligation to protect citizens and residents of the United States. I for one don’t have a solution, and I don’t have enough information to say what they should do.”
On Wednesday, the Louisiana Republican Party issued a statement saying: “Just yesterday, David Vitter had to notify the Obama Administration that a Syrian refugee who had been living in Baton Rouge has gone missing. What kind of accountability is that? There is an unmonitored Syrian refugee who is walking around freely, and no one knows where he is. That’s why we need to get everyone to the polls on Saturday to vote for David Vitter. Vitter flew up to DC yesterday to introduce legislation in the United States Senate that would stop all incoming refugees until we’ve conducted thorough, adequate background and criminal history checks.”
The Republican statement is inaccurate, according to Corina Salazar, the Louisiana Office for Refugees state coordinator in Baton Rouge.
“I can tell you that [the Syrian] left under the Homeland Security Requirement,” Salazar told Roll Call. “The form, called AR-11, was filled out. All refugees who out migrate fill out the form as part of the procedure. Anybody can move if they desire. He came through the the refugee program. … The person is not missing and followed the rule.”
Louisiana, she explained, is one of 13 states that has opted-out management of its refugee program, but instead allows an alternative program under the auspices of Catholic Charities.
“The refugee process can take two to 10 years,’’ she said. “It’s not like refugees enroll tomorrow with the U.N. and are here the day after.”
Jason Berry is author of a novel on Louisiana politics, “Last of the Red Hot Poppas,” and most recently, “Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”