DOVER — Delaware has not yet received any requests to host Syrian refugees, although Gov. Jack Markell said the state is prepared to do so.
Three families, or 10 people in total, settled in Delaware from Syria in 2013 and 2014 after first immigrating to other states, according to the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.
In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 people, governors across the nation have spoken out either in favor of or against letting Syrian refugees into the country. At least one suspect in the attacks is believed to be a Syrian refugee who entered Greece last month under a fake name, according to CNN.
In all, 29 governors have called on President Barack Obama to reject immigrants seeking shelter. All but one are Republicans.
Supporters of asylum have cited what they believe to be a “duty” to help those in need, while opponents argue it is too much of a security risk and would put a strain on available resources.
In a Facebook post Monday night, Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, announced he would accept refugees fleeing from the violence in the Middle East.
“The United States has always been a welcoming nation. We have always been compassionate and kind to those facing danger and injustice, and in our diversity we have found great strength,” he wrote.
“The safety and security of Delaware and its citizens are our top priority, but we also must understand we are talking about people fleeing perpetrators of terror. And while any security system can be improved, the federal refugee review system has the highest level of security checks of any traveler to American shores, including biometric and biographic checks as well as in-person overseas interviews by federal officials. These officials are trained to ensure the applicant is indeed a refugee and not a security risk. Collaboration and resources of multiple agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense are involved in this screening process.
“If the federal government decides to place some of those refugees in Delaware, we will work with our federal partners, while expecting them to recognize that the federal government must provide or pay for any services these individuals may need.”
The post immediately drew strong reactions — there were about 1,200 shares, 1,700 likes and 2,500 comments in the first 14 hours.
Citizens expressed their displeasure or approval, criticizing or touting the governor. Those in opposition frequently cited what they see as a lack of commitment to Delawareans in need, particularly veterans. Others praised the governor for, in their view, being compassionate.
In some places, the comments section descended into arguing and name-calling, with strong passions on display from both sides.
It wasn’t just Delaware residents taking part. Some state lawmakers weighed in, and predictably, Democrats and Republicans were divided.
Perhaps the most notable post came from former cabinet member Alan Levin.
Mr. Levin, a Republican businessman who resigned as head of the Delaware Economic Development Office over the summer after more than six years in the position, criticized Gov. Markell for potentially opening the United States up to dangers.
“Governor, I could not disagree more with your point of view. First and foremost, your obligation is the safety and well being of the people of Delaware. Regardless of your beliefs, you cannot guarantee these refugees will be properly vetted by the federal government before they are placed in our state,” he wrote.
“We have many problems in our state, led by an abhorrent amount of violence in our largest cities. Surely if we can’t remedy those issues how will you be able to handle refugees who may be aligned with (the Islamic State). Send them relief and aid but do not subject us to this problem. It may be selfish but Delaware and her citizens must come first.”
Gov. Markell said in a Tuesday morning interview he had not spoken to the White House about the situation but expected to do so within a day or two.
He noted the federal government, not the states, controls who enters the country.
“Are they going to put state police on their borders?” he said of the governors who sought to bar refugees.
The United States admitted about 1,500 refugees from Syria in fiscal year 2015, according to the White House, and supports allowing in 10,000 more this year.
Though he avoided directly criticizing individuals against immigration, Gov. Markell did contrast the current environment to the country’s history.
“It’s interesting connected to what happened in France,” he said. “They gave us the Statue of Liberty. ‘Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ They didn’t put conditions on it.”
While Delaware Republicans have opposed resettlement because of fears the vetting process is not thorough enough to prevent a potential terrorist from slipping in, Gov. Markell believes differently, calling the screening for Syrian refugees “the most stringent of anyone that comes into the country.” The screening process can take several years.
The governor did not know how many refugees might settle in the state, although he noted it would not be a large number, as Delaware is a small state.
A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wilmington said the nonprofit has not been told to prepare for any refugees entering the state.
Asked how he felt about the strong opposition from a large segment of the population, Gov. Markell said he does not doubt residents’ beliefs and knows “it’s a sensitive issue.”
“There are people with very strongly held views on both sides,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
He reiterated his stance the federal government should bear the cost, although what exactly that may be is yet to be determined.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the office has fielded “a few hundred calls” since Monday.
A commentary article by Gov. Markell was published by CNN.com Tuesday, with the governor defending the position taken by him and President Obama. He cited efforts by approximately 900 European Jews trying to gain entrance to the United States in 1939, efforts that ultimately failed. As the governor noted in his letter, about 250 of the refugees were later killed in the Holocaust.
His position remains unpopular with Republicans, however. Both the chairman of the Delaware GOP and Dover Sen. Colin Bonini sent letters to the governor Monday, requesting he block entrance into the state.
“We are a country that has a vibrant history of settling refugees,” Sen. Bonini, a candidate for governor in 2016, wrote. “However, the geopolitical climate has vastly changed and we need to adapt to the outstanding security threats posed to this country.”
It’s a stance taken by many.
Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he has heard from a large number of constituents who do not want the state to admit refugees.
“At this time the governor’s not really taking a rational position in regard to the terrorist issue,” he said, speaking on behalf of the House minority caucus.
He noted more than half the nation’s governors are pushing back on the federal government.
The Delaware Republican Party has called for residents to call the governor’s office and urge him to bar refugees from entering.
Neighboring states of Maryland and New Jersey, both of which have Republican governors, are among those not supportive of the immigration plan.
Settling in Delaware
Refugees typically enter the country with the aid of Catholic Charities, which works with the federal government through the direction of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference oversees the charity, and people who have what’s known as a “sponsor” in the United States — a friend or family member — can enter the nation with the assistance of Catholic Charities.
“By sponsoring them that family takes on the responsibility of basic needs being met” said Paula Savini, community relations director for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wilmington.
Individuals who settle in the country this way are known as direct refugees.
From there, they can move around, perhaps to find work or be with family in another state. Members of this group are sometimes called secondary refugees.
“Once they’ve been through the vetting and landed in a state, there’s nothing that keeps people from going from one state to another,” said spokeswoman Jill Fredel of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.
The state is aware of three families of Syrian refugees, comprising 10 people in total, who entered Delaware after fleeing from the Syrian civil war. Two of the families immigrated to the United States in 2013 and one in 2014. None initially were located in Delaware.
While there could be other refugees the state is unaware of, the federal government does keep track of every one, Ms. Fredel said.
The state knows of the three families because they applied to Delaware’s Refugee Resettlement program, a Health and Social Services-run program funded by the federal government.
Delaware contracts with Jewish Family Services of Delaware, which provides a variety of resources for refugees, such as English language lessons, assistance in helping children enter the school system or guidance finding housing.
For their first eight months in the nation, refugees are entitled to cash and medical assistance from the federal government. They must file for a green card within one year after being admitted.
Once refugees in Delaware are in a stable situation with a steady job, they are discharged from Jewish Family Services.
Ms. Savini said the nonprofit has not handled any cases involving Syrian refugees in Delaware and has not been instructed to be ready for any, although some refugees from other parts of the world, such as Iraq and Myanmar, have settled in Delaware in recent years.
As a small state, Delaware is unlikely to host many individuals seeking a new home. Whether it’s a suitable location is hard to determine.
“I don’t know if Delaware is a good place to be assimilated or a place like New York City is a better place or a place like Los Angeles,” Ms. Fredel said.