Council has a role on the refugee issue

Gary Bunker

On Nov. 12 the Aiken County Republican Party Executive Committee approved a resolution opposing refugee resettlement in Aiken County.

Passed unanimously, the resolution predated the Paris massacre by a day and the Mali massacre by a week. It states that the “resettlement of refugees from the Middle East is a matter of the most urgent concern, as it involves vital issues of national security, terrorism, public health, public safety, religious freedom and immigration.”

The resolution contends that any resettlement should occur only “after the will of the people of South Carolina is clearly established through legislative action.”

Therefore, the resolution asked the Aiken County Council to “immediately pass an ordinance to not accept any funds for the resettlement of refugees in Aiken County.”

Aiken County Republican Party Chairman K.T. Ruthven sees this resolution as a security measure.

“Security must come first and foremost,” he said. “The Paris and Mali massacres underscore what we’re trying to do. With the Savannah River Site nearby, the risk is not worth the reward.”

Ruthven finds President Obama’s quip that Republicans are afraid of “3-year-olds” absurd. “It would be one thing if we were solely talking about children, but this is about bringing in men and women of military age.”

Conservative activist Claude O’Donovan agrees. “It’s obvious that we’re being exposed to a kind of political cancer. There’s no method of vetting them. We have no idea who they are,” he said.

“In the pictures I’ve seen, there are hardly any children, and the preponderance is able-bodied men. There are not 3-year-olds,” said O’Donovan. “At minimum there will be thousands who want to kill us. Are we nuts?”

Presented to County Council on Nov. 17 by Ruthven, and backed by a crowd of nearly 100 concerned citizens, this request for action was favorably received by several Council members.

But what exactly can County Council do regarding refugee resettlement?

Isn’t the resettlement process driven by the federal government?

Is the resolution of symbolic value only?

This unusual situation is driven by Obama’s desire to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States and by a brief proviso in the South Carolina budget. This proviso states:

“No state funds shall be expended to assist in the United States Refugee Resettlement Program unless the county council of the county where the resettlement is to occur approves the relocation.”

Since no known resettlement in Aiken County is presently pending, any measure passed by the County Council would be a pre-emptive refusal of state refugee resettlement funds.

It’s expected that the County Council resolution to be considered on Dec. 8 will be similar to the one recently passed by the Anderson County Council. This declared that “the Anderson County Council will not approve or proceed with the Refugee Resettlement Project within the borders of Anderson County.”

But, as the South Carolina State Senate Judiciary staff cautions, “A state or local government cannot opt out of the United States Refugee Resettlement Program. A state or local government can express objections to participating in the Program; however, the federal government can ignore those objections.”

Such action is therefore more than symbolic but less than decisive.

The refusal of state funds would make resettlement more difficult.

Local opposition would also hinder federal efforts to resettle refugees, as placing them in hostile political environments may be more trouble than it’s worth.

So where does County Council stand on this issue?

Based on discussions with all nine members, and with some undecided, a majority favors passage of the resolution.

Security is a prime concern. “If you bring that many in, you’ll bring in some bad with the good,” said Council Chairman Ronnie Young.

Councilwoman Camille Furgiuele echoes this view. “My prime concern is the safety of the people of Aiken County.”

“What happened in Paris could happen here,” said Councilwoman Kathy Rawls.

Rawls also sees an economic concern: “There aren’t enough jobs to go around already, especially with illegal immigration running so high.”

Councilman Phil Napier agrees. “The U.S. can’t carry the rest of the world,” he said. “We need to look after our own citizens first.”

One dissenter is Councilman Willar Hightower. He thinks this is a federal issue, and given our history we should welcome those fleeing oppression.

“We should be especially receptive towards women and children,” said Hightower. “But the men should stay and defend their country.”

The bottom line, however, is that County Council will likely pass some version of this proposed resolution at its meeting on Dec. 8.

Gary Bunker is a former member of Aiken County Council.