Breaking News Emails
COLUMBIA, South Carolina — While Republican front-runner Donald Trump continues to make waves nationally for his comments about banning Muslims from traveling to the country, lawmakers in two very different states are proposing that all refugees register with the government.
Registration bills are being proposed in New York State and in South Carolina, where if refugees commit an act of terrorism, their sponsors, under the bill, could be held liable.
The South Carolina lawmakers say they are less concerned about a possible constitutional challenge than a possible terrorist threat coming to the state.
Opponents, however, say the measure is out of character for a state that often espouses the importance of Christian hospitality and loving your neighbor.
"I want us to be who we have always been — a welcoming people," said Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, who is helping lead the fight against the bill.
Sponsoring Sen. Kevin Bryant said the bill has three components: a registry of all refugees; civil liability for sponsors of refugees from counties considered state sponsors of terrorism by the federal government (currently Iran, Sudan and Syria) for crimes committed by refugees; and a prohibition on the state's spending any money on refugees and their families.
Bryant said the goal is to protect people's safety. Nearly 850 refugees from a number of countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East have come to South Carolina since 2010, with 87 arriving since last summer. The Anderson Republican said if only one of them were to conduct a terrorist attack it would be devastating.
Instead, he said, people in South Carolina can show their compassion by giving to relief organizations that help refugees elsewhere.
"Why should we bring one refugee here when we could spend the same money and help 10 in their part of the world?" Bryant said.
A challenge to the South Carolina measure is likely because the law singles people out by county of origin and seems bent toward discriminating against Muslims, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"If it is not illegal, it is at least un-American," Hooper said.
South Carolina senators debated the bill Wednesday and Thursday and would likely come back to it next Tuesday. Bryant is talking to Democrats about tweaking the proposal to allow some state money to be spent on refugee families, like for public education.
The bill was introduced as the civil war in Syria has created thousands of refugees and European countries have placed pressure on the U.S. to take in some of the people fleeing the violence. But terror attacks in Paris and California have heightened worries that refugees angry with the United States could get into the country.
The New York bill was introduced by state Sen. Terrence Murphy, a Republican who represents a district in the lower Hudson Valley.
It requires refugees to register with the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, be fingerprinted and have the office monitor their activities for year or until they become permanent residents, whichever happens first.
"While the state may lack the ability to block refugees from coming here, we do have the authority and responsibility to begin tracking who these people are, where they are coming from and to monitor the situation for potential threats," Murphy said when he introduced the bill.
But the New York Immigration Coalition, comprised of almost 200 groups that work with immigrants and refugees, has called on other senators to kill the measure, calling it a "heinous bill that treats refugees who are fleeing from violence and conflict like criminals."
Mike Bullock, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says there are no state registration laws on the books and the South Carolina and New York measures are the only two now proposed.