JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers questioned agency officials Monday on how at least $4.3 million in federal funding funneled through the state is used to help refugees following the deadly Paris attacks.
Members of the joint budget committee hearing cited concerns about whether federal vetting could catch potential terrorists trying to enter as refugees and raised questions about whether more money should be spent on security.
Social Services and Public Safety department officials told lawmakers that the state doesn’t help with federal screening of refugees and doesn’t conduct separate vetting.
“We rely on federal documentation,” Department of Social Services Director Brian Kinkade said.
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That further frustrated some lawmakers already concerned about the safety of allowing Syrian refugees fleeing the Islamic State, including some who have resettled in Missouri.
Despite calls by some lawmakers – mostly Republicans – to try to block or temporarily stop Syrian refugees from coming to the state, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has refused to take such steps.
Some faith groups and lawmakers support welcoming immigrants.
“Do we want to be able to protect our homeland? Yes,” Democratic St. Louis Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said. “But do we want to deny access to the most vulnerable? That’s the question that needs to be answered today.”
Individual states do not have the authority to block refugee placement.
Would-be refugees are generally referred to the U.S. government by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The process, which includes in-person interviews and fingerprinting, takes Syrians nearly three years on average. There’s no guarantee of approval.
According to a federal database 29 Syrian refugees have settled in Missouri so far this year.
State lawmakers have little control over federal funding, which in Missouri primarily goes through the Department of Social Services to provide refugees with housing, health care and cash assistance.
State legislators this fiscal year appropriated $200,000 in general revenue for services for elderly refugees, according to testimony from agency officials. No other state taxpayer money appears to have been budgeted for programs specifically for refugees, although it’s possible that the state spends additional money for some refugees on Medicaid or other social services.
Some House Democrats earlier Monday released a plan to spend $6.5 million for additional safeguards through the Missouri State Highway Patrol, including $1.5 million to verify federal screenings.
A Department of Public Safety official said it’s unclear whether such verification would be possible, and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Kurt Schaefer expressed doubts about the plan.
Schaefer said the hearing left some lawmakers’ questions unanswered, including inquiries about potential costs to the state if additional refugees settle in Missouri. He said no additional hearings are planned yet, and said the next step is to review information presented Monday.