Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Tuesday afternoon, after hundreds of emails and phone calls about whether or not Hawaii should accept Syrian refugees, that his position remains the same: The state should keep its doors open to Syrian refugees as long as the proper security precautions are taken.
Responding to the attacks Friday in Paris that killed at least 129 people, more than two dozen governors have said they will not accept Syrian refugees. They lack the power to block the federal government from relocating refugees in their states; but they can take measures that would make it harder to do so.
President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees out of the millions who are fleeing the violence and atrocities in their war-torn homeland. Germany, by contrast, has accepted more than 57,000 Syrian refugees so far this year. Obama slammed critics who have used “offensive and hysterical” language after the attacks, saying this only strengthens the Islamic State in Syria.
Over the past decade, 21 refugees have been relocated to Hawaii but none were from Syria, Ige told reporters at the Capitol in Honolulu. That’s according to the Pacific Gateway Center, the only refugee resettlement agency in Hawaii.
He was one of 34 governors who took part in a 90-minute call Tuesday to hear what White House officials, federal law enforcement and others in the Obama Administration had to say about the issue.
Ige said he learned that the screening process is intense, and that only a small fraction of those who apply are admitted.
Since 2011, the United Nations has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees through the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program. Only 7,014 made it through the initial screening process, which includes background checks by the State Department. And of those, fewer than 2,000 were allowed to enter the country, according to the governor’s office.
Ige noted that the governors did make it clear that the process should be more transparent.
The governor said he had been busy working on homelessness issues and the state budget — his proposal is due to the Legislature next month — but decided to issue a statement Monday about Syrian refugees.
“This Syria issue is not of my making,” he said, seeming irritated that it was taking time away from other pressing issues.
Ige was careful to say that he realizes there are concerns about security.
“I do understand that it’s a different world that we live in today — that the spector of terrorists reaching into each and every community is a real possibility, regardless of all of our efforts to keep our communities safe,” he said.
“But let me assure you that we continue to work to offer those, as appropriate, the opportunity to flee from terrorism and war and oppression,” Ige said. “These refugees really are mothers and fathers and children that have been through horrific ordeals in their countries and do seek to relocate to the United States, and the State of Hawaii is a participant.”
Ige said he was horrified by the attacks in France and spends much time thinking about how to keep Hawaii safe.
“But I also understand what happens when a community for whatever reason is discriminated against irresponsibly or with no basis,” he said, noting how Japanese Americans were interned during World War II and their property taken.
“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for Isil [Isis] than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. Isil seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the west…” — President Barack Obama
Obama, speaking at a regional summit in the Philippines, was quoted by The Guardian as saying: “We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.When individuals say we should have a religious test and that only Christians, proven Christians should be admitted, that’s offensive.
“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for Isil [Isis] than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. Isil seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the west, and when you see individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the Isil narrative. It’s counter-productive. And it needs to stop.”
Hawaii Republican Party Chair Fritz Rohlfing and state Sen. Sam Slom said in separate statements that they feel for the Syrians but that the state cannot absorb them given the current challenges with homelessness and the high cost of living. They also worried about security.