A coalition of Maine immigrants is urging Maine’s 2nd District congressman and Republican Gov. Paul LePage to “check their facts” and reconsider their support for efforts to block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition said it was deeply saddened by the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut last week and feared the backlash of political rhetoric against immigrants and refugees it prompted.

“Many of the members of the coalition know firsthand the fear and danger experienced by refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria,” the statement read.  

“They made their way to Maine fleeing similar atrocities in other nations. Whether they came here from Somalia, Iraq, Burundi, Sudan, Afghanistan, or other countries, they have had to make the difficult decision to leave everything they have known to make a new life in a new country. They know the horrors of war and understand the plight of the people of Syria who are fleeing the same perpetrators of last week’s attacks.”

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, voted against continuing a President Barack Obama-sanctioned resettlement program for refugees fleeing Syria until a stiffer security screening process is adopted.

“With the serious threats that America faces today, it is vital that we push to stop this administration’s dangerous refugee resettlement program until we can ensure, for certain, that exhaustive measures are in place to keep our families and communities safe,” Poliquin said in a prepared statement after the vote.

Earlier in the week, LePage joined 28 other governors in the U.S., all but one of them Republican, in saying they would do all they could to block Syrian refugees from coming to their states. It was a message that drew sharp rebukes from LePage’s Democratic rivals, including state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who called the statement “morally repugnant.”

Other members of Maine’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, said they had other concerns about whom the U.S. allows to enter the country without security checks.

Collins and King are members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and regularly are briefed on classified information detailing terrorist activities and threats against the U.S. and its citizens.

After one such briefing Thursday, King told CNN he was increasingly interested in a proposal being advanced by the committee’s chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

That proposal would change the rules on a federal visa waiver program that allows citizens from select countries, including France and others in Europe, to enter the U.S. without a visa and the security background check that comes with it.

The change would require a visa for citizens from the countries that participate in the waiver program if they have traveled to Iraq or Syria within the past five years.

Some of those involved in the terror attacks in Paris are believed to be radicalized French citizens who traveled to Syria to train and fight with the Islamic State before returning to France.

As new details on the Paris terror attacks emerged Thursday and Friday including the fact that all but one of those known to have participated in the attacks was either a French or Belgian national King said the focus on refugees seemed misplaced.

“Frankly, (the visa waiver program is) a greater vulnerability than the issue of the Syrian refugees who have to go through an 18-month to two-year vetting process,” King said to CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. “Very few get through it; most of them are women and children and elderly people. So let’s focus our attention where the greatest threat is.” 

A spokesman for King in Washington said Thursday that King wouldn’t make any other comments on the legislation until he saw a draft of the bill.

On the Senate floor earlier in the week, Collins spoke in opposition to an amendment by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.  

Paul, a Republican presidential hopeful, offered a bill that would have suspended issuing U.S. visas to Syrians and citizens of 33 other countries, including Turkey, a United States’ NATO ally, and Middle Eastern allies Jordan and Lebanon. Paul’s proposal, tabled by Senate leaders, also would suspend federal welfare support for refugees already admitted to the U.S.

Calling Paul’s proposals “a meat-ax approach,” Collins said she opposed them because they would only further destabilize an already volatile region of the world.

Collins reflected on a trip she had made to Greece and Italy in October to witness firsthand the flood of refugees coming to those countries from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as from African countries torn by war and terrorism. She said she met women and young children who clearly posed no danger to the U.S.

Collins said that while she has concerns that immigration officials in some European countries may not be doing enough to cross-reference names, photos and fingerprints of refugees with terror watch lists, she still couldn’t support an all-out U.S. visa ban for people coming from those countries or others.

“We can’t just automatically say no to an Iraqi interpreter who has worked with our special forces and now is in danger of losing his life and having his family slaughtered because he helped to save Americans’ lives in Iraq,” Collins said.

“Are we saying we will not let a single person from 34 countries into our country, no matter how many American lives they have saved, no matter whether or not they pose a threat to us?”

Collins went on to say she didn’t believe the U.S. was doing the best job it could in screening visitors and immigrants, but like King, she said the focus on those who are fleeing terror and war seemed grossly misplaced.

“But you know,” Collins said, “perhaps we should be focusing on those Americans yes, even Americans — who have become radicalized and have traveled to Syria and Iraq and been trained to plot attacks here in this country.”

She said so-called “lone wolf” terror attacks like the one committed by U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2010 should also be a point of consideration.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

How refugees make their way to Maine


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