Pa. faith leaders call on politicans to oppose refugee restrictions

 A Sunday, June 14, 2015 file photo of a Syrian refugee carrying a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

A Sunday, June 14, 2015 file photo of a Syrian refugee carrying a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

In an effort to re-frame a political debate that pits welcoming refugees against security concerns, a coalition of faith advocates have called on Pennsylvania’s legislators not to support what they call “discriminatory” proposals.

Those proposals include a bill to halt refugees from Iraq and Syria that passed the US House of Representatives last month, with the support of all 12 Pennsylvania Republicans in Congress.

Called the American SAFE Act of 2015, that bill would bar refugees from Iraq and Syria while tougher background checks could be explored and implemented. The current vetting process for refugees from Syria takes on average of 24 months and would likely get longer if the SAFE Act became law.

Sister Dominica Lo Bianco from Our Lady of Angels Convent in Aston, Delaware County said restricting refugees in the name of security doesn’t make sense because there are other, easier ways for a terrorist to cross the U.S. border.

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“We don’t believe we need to make a choice, as some in Washington say … between the gospel call to welcome the stranger and legitimate concerns for safety,” she said.

Lo Bianco joined members of Church World Service, the Disciples of Christ as well as Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski in sharing stories of churches in York, Lancaster and the Lehigh Valley area welcoming refugees.

“The congregations that I work with are ready and willing” to welcome refugees, said Christine Baer, of Church World Services. She also described a newly arrived Syrian refugee family cooking a thank-you dinner of traditional Syrian food for the people that supported them in their first few weeks in Lancaster.

“The number of volunteers continue to grow,” said Reverend Joan Maruskin, program administrator of Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program and former executive director of York County Council of Churches.

“There has been no community pushback” in the York area, she added. In Lancaster, some refugee resettlement agencies do report mixed feelings from locals.

Several people put the blame squarely on the media for what they considered a failure to convey positive portrayals of refugees or to share stories of Americans who support refugees.

Since the SAFE Act sailed through the House, the Congress and the White House have floated some other policy responses to fears about ISIS or other radical groups hoping to exploit immigration policy to attack the U.S.

Texas senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz introduced the Terrorist Refugee Infiltration Prevention Act of 2015, which would bar refugees from any “country containing terrorist-controlled territory,” from entering the U.S. The short list would include Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Somalia. The proposal provides for “exceptions,” such as someone who is a member of a group that has been targeted for genocide in one of those countries.

That bill is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Neither Pennsylvania Senators Pat Toomey (R) or Bob Casey (D) were available to comment on proposed legislation. In the past month, Toomey held a press call where he explained that he supports tightening refugee background checks. Casey released a statement in support of the existing process, calling it the “most rigorous vetting in the world.”

Meanwhile, following attacks in San Bernadino, California, President Barack Obama has turned his attention to reforming programs that let non-citizens enter the U.S. without much scrutiny, such as the Visa Waiver Program. 

Obama said he would veto the house bill to lengthen the background check process if it comes across his desk.

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