After a heated debate Wednesday, a House panel voted to refuse to use state and local resources to cooperate with efforts to place refugees here unless the federal government meets certain conditions.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, cited the terrorist attacks in Paris, where refugees from the Middle East were involved, as proof of the danger of letting certain people into the country. His legislation says if federal agencies want the state’s help they have to show the person has gone through a “thorough criminal history, terrorism and health background check.”
It also would require the federal government to fully reimburse the state for any costs.
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said HB2370 seeks to “scapegoat” refugees for various problems. Thorpe said that’s not true.
“I’m certainly not trying to scapegoat anyone,” he responded. “If I were, it would be the federal government.”
Rep. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, agreed with Thorpe on one point: The legislation likely will do nothing to block the federal government from settling refugees here. But what it will do, she said, is add to the state’s reputation — and not a good one at that.
“This is yet another message that we are motivated by fear, that we want to keep people out that don’t look like us,” she said, adding to the “stereotype” that some people have of Arizona.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, lashed out not only at refugees but more broadly at immigration.
“We have been so overrun by immigrants and illegals and people coming to this country,” he said.
Campbell said it was one thing to welcome immigrants and refugees when the nation’s population was much less.
“We’re not in the 1890s anymore,” he said, saying the nation needs a “time out.” And he disputed Wheeler’s arguments that the federal government does extensive screening of refugees.
“It never happens,” Campbell said. “And then people come into this country and cause great damage.”
Wheeler, however, accused his colleagues of selective vision.
“I don’t see the same attention being paid to another form of terrorism: the terrorists who kill abortion clinic employees, the terrorist Timothy McVey who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City,” he said. “I don’t see the same demand for finding those loopholes that allow these people who want to overthrow our government in the name of that misguided attempt and through terrorism kill women, children and innocent people in Oklahoma City.”
But Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said the legislation reflects a belief that the federal government cannot be trusted to screen out those who do not belong here.
The 5-2 vote of the Committee on Federalism and States’ Rights came over the objections of Ron Johnson who lobbies on behalf of the state’s three Catholic bishops. Johnson said the church runs one of the larger refugee resettlement programs in Arizona.
By the same margin, the panel also approved HB2691 which requires a state-conducted audit to determine the number of refugees resettled in the state in the last 36 months, the amount of money the state has spent and what reimbursements have come from the federal government.
Rios said much of that already is known.
The Department of State reports that in 2014 and 2015 it resettled 183 Syrians in Arizona, including 72 in Glendale, 63 in Tucson and the balance in Phoenix. Overall, 2,960 refugees from all places were resettled in Arizona last year, with the largest group was from Somalia, with 522, followed by 442 from Iraq.
And Rios cited figures from legislative budget staffers who said the state’s Refugee Resettlement Program is entirely funded by the federal government, having received more than $12.6 million last budget year and more than $4.4 million so far this fiscal year.