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Lawmakers move closer to holding charities liable for refugee crimes

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Unable to block the Obama administration from sending refugees here, state lawmakers are now erecting a new roadblock.

On a 4-2 margin the House Judiciary Committee voted to make any charity that helps resettle refugees from certain countries financially liable for any crimes they commit within the first five years they are here. And to back that up, the charities would have to obtain $25 million in liability insurance or face civil fines of up to $1,000 a day for each of the refugees it has resettled in the past five years.

SB1452, crafted by Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West, is very specific, targeting only refugees who are from “high risk” countries. And that is defined in a way to include many countries from the Middle East which have been a source of new Arizona residents.

Ron Johnson, who lobbies for Arizona Catholic Charities, said this would be the first such law like this in the entire country. He questioned both its necessity and its legality.

The move comes several months after Gov. Doug Ducey asked the federal government to halt refugee resettlement into Arizona.

Ducey cited a provision of federal law that entitles him to “immediate consultation by federal authorities” of plans to resettle any refugees in the state. And he demanded the federal government “take into account the concerns and recommendations of the state of Arizona as they are required to under federal law, in our efforts to keep our homeland safe.”

But what Ducey got was a conference call between federal officials and various governors detailing their screening efforts.

None of that has stopped the flow.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, has separate legislation to preclude state local officials and agencies from cooperating with the federal government to place refugees here unless that person has undergone a “thorough criminal history, terrorism and health background check and has been approved for placement by this state.”

Burges, like Thorpe, acknowledged the state cannot block refugees. But she said her legislation would at least ensure that taxpayers are protected if any of them commit crimes.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said the measure makes sense.

“People who come through here on a regular path legally take years,” he said.

“When you talk about refugees, there is a different path,” Farnsworth continued. “They are not fully vetted.”

Johnson disagreed.

“It takes years,” he said of the process. And Johnson said it is wrong to hold charities, which may help a family for six months, financially responsible for five years.

Johnson also said most of the refugees they see are women and children who have lost everything, including other loved ones. More to the point, he said that the screening that has occurred, coupled with the risk of being deported, probably makes these refugees less likely to commit crimes than those already here.

Burges provided only one example which she said came from a constituent in Glendale where she said there are about 300 Iranians who have been resettled.

“Their complaint was that the father had abused the children and the mother cannot protect the children from the father because they are considered to be chattel under that particular belief system,” she said.

There are the legal questions.

Johnson said there is no such insurance available. In fact, Johnson said, he does not think it is even legal to sell insurance to cover someone’s criminal acts.

And he said that singling out refugees from only some countries probably runs afoul of equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, questioned the propriety of putting a financial burden on charities that are simply helping people who the state has no right to keep out. Farnsworth was unswayed.

“That’s what we do here,” he said.

“Everything we do is a burden,” Farnsworth continued. “We tell people what to do, good or bad, conservative or liberal, right or wrong, that’s what we do in this Legislature.”

Rep. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, said there’s another problem with the legislation. He said it seems to make the charity liable the moment someone is arrested, even before there is a conviction.

That did not bother Burges.

“Our police force will probably be doing a good job,” she said.

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. And from the time Ducey registered his objections until mid January, 16 Syrians were resettled in Arizona.

Overall, 2,960 refugees from all places were resettled in Arizona last year. The largest group was from Somalia, with 522, followed by 442 from Iraq.

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