Kansas lawmakers pull back efforts to limit refugees

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

? Republicans who control the Kansas House pulled back an effort Thursday to limit refugee resettlement without enough health services or law enforcement to accommodate the newcomers, citing questions about how such a policy would be carried out.

Representatives voted 72-39 in favor of returning a measure to the House Federal and State Affairs Committee following an inundation of amendments that questioned the implications of the measure. Under the Kansas Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act, communities can 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.

Critics argued that the bill was based off of fear of terrorism and insisted that religious organizations should have the freedom to continue providing services to refugees. However, supporters said that the measure would codify into state law certain federal requirements related to state agencies involved in the resettling of refugees and that it would also protect the state from terrorist activity.

Although Republican Rep. Tony Barton from Leavenworth insisted that the measure was not about “keeping all refugees out of the state of Kansas,” critics considered it a veiled attempt to limit refugees without violating the 1980 Refugee Resettlement Act, which prohibits states from rejecting refugees.

“We as a nation are distancing from the politics of reason to the politics of fear,” said Rep. Brandon Whipple, a Democrat from Wichita who opposed the bill. He sought changes to the measure that would allow religious organizations to continue providing services to refugees despite a moratorium on resettlement, but the House ultimately voted against the amendment.

Rep. Craig McPherson, an Overland Park Republican, said he was concerned about the hidden costs of regulating the resettlements.

Kansas is one of several states attempting to limit refugee resettlement following President Barack Obama administration’s pledge in September to accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria over the next year. Tennessee was the first state to authorize the governor to issue a moratorium on refugee resettlement, although no requests have been made since the law was enacted in 2011.

The bill comes at a time when presidential candidates consider how they would handle immigration and refugee resettlement. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said during a rally in October that he would send back Syrian refugees in the U.S. in case they were Islamic extremists.

Whipple compared the heightened state of fear to that of the years during World War II when Jewish children in Europe were denied resettlement in the U.S. He passed around copies of a photo of a Syrian toddler — whose body washed ashore in Turkey last fall– urging representatives to allow refugees under 18 years old to enter Kansas.

But supporters argued that the motion had gone too far. Republican Rep. Dick Jones, of Topeka, said that it would not benefit refugees to be removed from their cultural heritage to be resettled in Kansas and that the state also risked losing some of its own culture.

FSA Committee Chairwoman Republican Rep. Jan Pauls, of Hutchinson, told The Associated Press after the debate that the measure allows local governments to have some authority over resettlement. Pauls acknowledged that the legality of the measure was questionable, because states are prohibited from rejecting refugees under the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980.

“The thought is that you have a moratorium on certain communities; you’re not saying that they (refugees) can’t enter the state,” Pauls said. “You’re just saying that communities don’t have the capacity.”

She added that the measure was an important one and that she would try to schedule another hearing this session despite the packed schedule.