Government & Politics

Missouri lawmakers holding public hearing on Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees disembark on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea on a dinghy from the Turkish coast.
Syrian refugees disembark on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea on a dinghy from the Turkish coast. AP

Missouri lawmakers are looking for ways they can stop refugees from war-torn Syria from relocating to the state.

On Monday, the House Budget and Senate Appropriations committees will hold a rare joint hearing to review any state programs that could be used to provide assistance for refugee resettlement — and where funding could be cut off.

“What we’ve asked the budget committee to do is get a real good handle on what the process is, what the flow of money is and what role the state can play in trying to hit the pause button on this program until we have some confidence that more adequate security measures are in place,” House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, recently told Missourinet.

Dozens of lawmakers, every Republican running for Missouri governor and even Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster have urged Gov. Jay Nixon to take steps to block Syrian refugees from settling in Missouri.

They’ve expressed concern that the screening process for refugees is not tough enough and could allow someone to enter the country who seeks to carry out terrorist attacks.

“While we are compassionate to the victims of the Syrian civil war, our first and most important duty as legislators is to keep our people safe from harm’s way,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican.

The governor, a Democrat, has said the refugee question is a federal issue.

That response earned the scorn of Republicans, including some who want the General Assembly to call itself into special session to take action. State Rep. Mike Moon, an Ash Grove Republican, led the call for a special session, saying lawmakers must move to “tie the governor’s hands, putting a stop to the potential Islamization of Missouri.”

Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat, urged Nixon to take a “more human position.” She pointed to her father-in-law, who along with his mother and siblings “barely escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 when a large number of their extended family was killed in death camps.”

Newman is joined by the Missouri Catholic Conference, which said Syrian refugees are the most vetted individuals of any group of people seeking to enter the U.S.

Security checks are conducted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. State Department. The entire screening process can take up to two years.

“Not even a police state can offer its citizens absolute safety, but the current screening process is robust and provides reasonable assurance of our citizens’ safety,” said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.

Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, is one of the few members of his party urging Missourians to welcome Syrians into the state.

“America has always been and should forever remain a safe haven for religious refugees,” Barnes wrote on his website.

The position of the Republican-dominated General Assembly stands in contrast to the mayors of the state’s largest cities. Both Kansas City Mayor Sly James and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay have joined mayors from across the nation in calling for Congress to allow refugees to come to the U.S. after they have completed the screening process.

Regardless of the position of the state legislature, Slay said “the City of St. Louis will continue to welcome Syrian refugees.”

“Whether they are Christian, Muslim, or any other faith, they are our neighbors and they need our help,” Slay said. “We will not cower. We will not slam its door in the faces of people fleeing a war-torn country. And the City of St. Louis will not place a religious test on our compassion.”