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Refugee Crisis Sparks Debate Throughout Florida Government

Women and children striking at Budapest's Keleti railway station.
Mstyslav Chernov

Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination continue to tussle over immigration.  But in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, those debates have become tangled in an argument over how best to deal with an expanding refugee crisis.  It’s playing out in the Florida Legislature as well.

Sunday night at Tallahassee’s Temple Israel, religious and political leaders met for an interfaith forum discussing the friction surrounding refugees in public discourse.  In November of last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott joined the more than thirty governors voicing opposition to allowing Syrian refugees in their states.  Of those governors, all are Republicans save one, and many argue their stance is motivated by politics rather than a genuine threat. 

But panelist Jeff Howell—Republican committeeman for Leon county—defends the governors’ caution.

“Liberalism does not hold a monopoly over compassion and caring, there are thoughtful conservatives throughout this country and throughout this world,” Howell says.  “Secondarily I’d like to say it’s alright to question your elected officials about national security and about vetting and about what’s going on with respect to the immigration that is coming over.” 

“It doesn’t mean you’re a bigot, it doesn’t mean you’re a racist it doesn’t mean you’re a xenophobe.”

Without directly addressing Governor Scott’s stance, Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham aimed for a middle path—defending her vote on a measure that would add an additional level of oversight on Iraqi or Syrian refugees

“We owe an obligation to the people of this country to make sure that those that come in have been thoroughly vetted, and we owe an obligation to the people of this country to certify that that process is one that accomplishes that goal.” Graham says, “That’s why I voted for the bill.  It’s not an either or question.  We can do both.” 

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum took a different view than the governor.  It’s a trend that played out between many city and state leaders across the country.  Gillum says the supposed risks of admitting refugees don’t track with reality, and greeting people in need with suspicion does a disservice to the country.

“I think the Syrian refugee crisis is one of those areas in which our values are tested,” he says.  “As Martin Luther King once said, it’s not about where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience.  It’s easy to have strong American values and ideals around how we treat one another until we’re tested.”

And the state Legislature is tackling the issue as well.

“The reason that we formed the Constitution was to ensure domestic tranquility,” Rep. Lake Ray (R-Jacksonville) says.  “It ends with that.  There’s no other discussion.”

Ray is taking steps to give the governor sweeping new authorities when it comes to refugees, because he believes terrorist organizations are using the process to gain entry into the country.

“The Constitution protects the citizens first of the United States, it is therefore imperative that we take every measure as those representing the state of Florida to protect ourselves,” Ray says.

Among other things, the bill grants the governor authority to mobilize military force to block so-called restricted persons from entering the state.  Restricted persons include people from a place where terrorists originate, organize or train.  It also includes people who have been in close proximity those places, and it’s the governor who decides which places qualify. 

Of course the object of Ray’s legislation is the Middle East and Islamic terrorist organizations operating there.

But at Sunday evening’s forum, Imam Amro Abbas cautioned against painting Muslims with too broad a brush.  He says refugees are coming to America for the same reason people always have.

“Muslims in America, when they came here they came here the same like all the Americans,” Abbas says.  “Coming to the land of freedom.”

“So they stayed here,” he goes on, “and when they stayed here the love of the land of freedom entered their hearts.”

Many Democrats in the state Legislature, as well as Gillum and Graham, believe Ray’s proposal won’t stand up to judicial scrutiny.  But it has passed one committee already, and it comes before another Tuesday.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.