State Lawmakers Aim To Block Middle Eastern Refugees

Feb 16, 2016

An international refugee crisis, and the growth of ISIS abroad and online, are sending shockwaves around the world. Some of those shocks are rippling through the Florida Legislature. Some state lawmakers are moving forward with plans to give the governor sweeping powers over immigration.

An aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
Credit Sharnoff's Global Views/ flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/sgviews/11110449505/

Jacksonville Republican Representative Lake Ray is taking steps to broaden the governor’s authority over immigrants and refugees. Ray’s bill would empower the Governor to restrict the entry of so called “invaders” and "restricted persons”, or people coming from areas where terrorists organize or train. House Democrats, including Miami Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez question the Constitutionality of the bill.

“I look at the staff analysis which I think very astutely raises several pretty major constitutional issues: equal protection, due process, preemption. There are also some state constitutional issues as well,” he said.

Ray and others criticize the federal immigration system, and fear terrorists will slip into the country along with asylum seekers. Brandon Representative Ross Spano implies there’s just something different about Middle Eastern refugees.

“Look, my family was immigrants too, this is a preface to the questions. We’re all immigrants at some level.  But isn’t it fair to make a distinction in this case?” he asked.

That sentiment is echoed in Congress, and on the presidential debate stage. But critics say Middle Eastern refugees undergo the most stringent vetting of any immigrants to the US. Laila Abdelaziz represents the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Here she is giving a rundown of the vetting process.

“Five federal agencies work together to screen these individuals. This process takes between 18 to 24 months, and it includes a US CIS agent leaving the country, going to the field, interviewing the individual and the family and for at least an hour, as well as screening their biometric data on an international level,” she said.

Ahmed Yakzan is an immigration lawyer, and an immigrant, and he remembers this process well. Yakzan says a recent trip to his native Lebanon reminded him of the meaning of religious liberty in America.

“I really saw what the United States means. It means that I can sleep on my pillow in the middle of the night, and the chances of someone knocking my door, or breaking my door down and killing me because I’m a Muslim are very rare, they’re very low. Whereas I might actually get that just in my home country,” he said.

Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez raises another concern: Ray’s bill would burden FDLE with the additional screening and vetting of immigrants.

“The irony here I think is that FDLE and local law enforcement are going to be spending added resources duplicating what already occurs at the federal level. So in an ironic twist, I think this actually sets us backwards in terms of community safety,” he said.

Background checks and constitutionality aside, Laila Abdelaziz questions the intent behind the bill

“Legislators are sending a message to Floridians: read between the lines, we don’t want Muslims in this country. Islam and the West are mutually exclusive. And this creates the political climate that is unhealthy to properly integrate refugees, who are fleeing political carnage, who are the utmost and frontline victims of political carnage, extremism and radicalism,” she said.

But lawmakers could be making a mountain out of a legislative molehill. While the House version of the bill is moving forward to its final committee stop, the Senate version has not had a single hearing.