Politics & Government

Bryant, Coast officials join calls to block Syrian refugee resettlement

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDGov. Phil Bryant talks with supporters after a press conference of state Republican leaders stating their opposition to Initiative 42, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDGov. Phil Bryant talks with supporters after a press conference of state Republican leaders stating their opposition to Initiative 42, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. SUN HERALD

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant was one of at least 17 governors who vowed Monday to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states.

He's gotten support from several state a local leaders in South Mississippi.

"I'm currently working with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety and Mississippi Office of Homeland Security to determine the current status of any Syrian refugees that may be brought to our state in the near future," Bryant said in a statement. "I will do everything humanly possible to stop any plans from the Obama administration to put Syrian refugees in Mississippi. The policy of bringing these individuals into the country is not only misguided, it is extremely dangerous."

Bryant arrived back in Mississippi on Sunday after spending a week leading a state economic development trip to Israel. He spoke at a defense conference in Tel Aviv about Mississippi's role in researching and building unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Biloxi City Council member Kenny Glavan said he plans to introduce a resolution saying Biloxi would not approve the Refugee Resettlement Project and will not approve the relocation of refugees from the Middle East within city limits.

Rep. Steven Palazzo and Sen. Roger Wicker also have voiced opposition to the refugees.

But whether states or cities have any legal control over refugee resettlement -- a federal program -- remains murky.

Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration, said states don't have any legal authority to block refugees from being resettled in their communities.

U.S. refugee programs are governed by the Refugee Act of 1980 that created a refugee coordinator for the country and outlined procedures for resettlement within the United States.

A spokesman for President Barack Obama said Sunday that the administration is moving forward with its plan to thoroughly vet and admit as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S.

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There haven't been any Syrian refugees resettled in Mississippi.

Catholic Social and Community Services, which operates a refugee resettlement program in Biloxi, said it hasn't been asked to take on any Syrian refugees.

Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich sought Monday to tamp down speculation about refugees in Biloxi. He said while there are no known plans to bring any to Biloxi, officials "will be vigilant" and the city remains in regular contact with local, state and federal agencies that would have a role in the situation.

"There were probably some locals back then who didn't like the idea of my ancestors moving in, especially considering they were escaping from grave situations at that time," said Gilich, a direct descendant of Croatian refugees. "I think the record shows that the Croatians became successful citizens and leaders in our community."

Other southern governors who have issued statements similar to Bryant's include Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas, Rick Scott in Florida, Robert Bently in Alabama, Greg Abbott in Texas, Nathan Deal in Georgia, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Pat McCrory in North Carolina.

Governors of Indiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Illinois, Arizona, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and presidential hopeful John Kasich all made similar declarations.

Some of the governors announced they were directing state agencies not to participate in refugee resettlement from Syria. Others wrote a letter directly to the White House asking refugees not be brought to their states.

The list grew steadily longer as Monday wore on. All are Republican governors.

Multiple presidential candidates also spoke out Monday against President Obama's plan to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria. The White House said it intends to move forward with the plan even in the wake of a terrorist attack in Paris that killed at least 129 and injured hundreds more.

Palazzo said Monday he remains opposed to Obama's plan.

"Congressman Palazzo not only opposes refugees entering Mississippi, but also believes we should immediately halt the Syrian refugee program altogether," said spokesperson Jill Duckworth. "He believes Middle Eastern refugees should be resettled in the Middle East, not here in the United States."

On Twitter, Sen. Roger Wicker said he thought Bryant made the right decision in not accepting any refugees.

While no Syrian refugees have settled in Mississippi and there have been no plans to do so, some states -- like Michigan, North Carolina and Indiana -- have seen refugees arrive before their respective governors announced the attempt to halt the program.

The Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, though, said in a statement it was ready to help refugees from Syria should it be called upon to do so. Catholic Social and Community Services has operated the Refugee Resettlement program since an influx of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s and partners with the government to resettle those fleeing war, persecution or grave strife.

While the statement said the Diocese supported a thorough vetting process, "assisting and welcoming those fleeing war and terror remains very much a part of our mission as Christians."

"If they are across the sea in the Middle East, we will reach out to them there. If our government provides for them to come here, we will help them here," the statement said. "We recognize people have concerns that the refugee stream could be infiltrated but that doesn't mean that we should turn our backs on, for example, a war-ravaged family, a widow, or a single mother and her baby."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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