Kansas lawmakers debating measures to limit refugees

Kansas House Speaker Pro Tem Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, watches the chamber's electronic voting board as members reject a Democratic attempt to delay final action on a budget measure, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Topeka. Mast introduced a bill that would let Gov. Sam Brownback halt refugee resettlement in communities that don't have the services to handle newcomers.

? Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that would let the governor halt refugee resettlement in communities that don’t have the law enforcement or health care services to handle the newcomers.

Supporters say the state needs to be cautious about potential threats of terrorism, but critics call the measure anti-Muslim.

Under the bill, which got a hearing last week, a community could request a moratorium on resettlement from the Department for Children and Families and the governor if it were unable to provide services to those arriving.

The bill also would require the department to track where families move after initial settlement and any crimes committed by refugees.

The bill is one among several efforts in Kansas and nationwide to limit settlement of refugees from Syria and elsewhere without violating the Refugee Act of 1980, which prohibits states from rejecting refugees.

President Barack Obama’s administration pledged in September to accept at least 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria over a one-year period. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was among at least 20 governors who opposed the resettlement after it was reported that a passport of a Syrian refugee was found near the body of a suicide bomber involved in the November attacks in Paris. Brownback signed an executive order prohibiting any state entity or other organization that receives state funding from assisting refugee resettlement.

Rep. Peggy Mast, a Republican from Emporia, introduced the bill after consulting with Christopher Holton of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank. Holton testified in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee last week.

Mast told the committee that she became aware of the lack of oversight in the refugee community after speaking with resettlement organizations about Somalian refugees in her area. She was alarmed that domestic abuse such as genital mutilation was undocumented, she said.

“As a woman, I find it offensive that any female should be treated as less than equal in our country,” Mast said.

Holton acknowledged that resettlement is ruled by the federal government, but he said that the program was due for reform in light of recent terrorist attacks.

“This is not an act to stop all refugees from coming into the country,” Holton told the Associated Press on Friday. Instead, he said, it’s an attempt for states to have some control over their safety.

Mast said she is also worried about terrorist activity in Kansas after a foiled plot near Fort Riley last year.

“We’re not bringing the Christians and Jews that are culturally similar to our culture,” she said about the Syrian refugees.

Micah Kubric, a lobbyist from the American Civil Liberties Union, told the committee that he fears the bill would encourage discrimination.

“Denial of services based exclusively on the innate, demographic characteristics of alienage or national origin is a textbook example of rank discrimination,” Kubic said, adding that the state would be vulnerable to lawsuits.

Kubic mentioned a similar bill in South Dakota that was tabled after the sponsor of the bill admitted that it wouldn’t endure a constitutional challenge.

Tennessee was the first state to authorize the governor to issue a moratorium on refugee resettlement. No requests for moratoriums have been made since the law was enacted in 2011.

In Kansas, committee Chairman Jan Pauls, a Hutchinson Republican, said the House committee will continue discussing Mast’s bill in early March. The Legislature is set to take a break beginning Wednesday and return to work March 2.