Attacks in Paris lead to scrutiny of refugee policy

Word that one of the Paris attackers posed as a migrant from Syria reignited debate Sunday over whether the United States — and Georgia — should accept more refugees fleeing the war-torn country.

Some argued the carnage in the French capital provides fresh evidence that humanitarian impulses should be trumped by security concerns given the real risk that extremists could take advantage of the refugee crisis to gain entrance to the west.

State Sen. Josh McKoon said the weekend’s developments “clearly indicate a need for a thorough reevaluation of our refugee and immigration policies.”

"Here in Georgia, that should begin with an immediate suspension of any settlement of refugees within our borders," the Republican from Columbus told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Fifty-nine Syrian refugees have settled in the Atlanta area since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 and that number is set to grow as the United States prepares to open its doors to more of the displaced.

Advocates for refugees, however, cautioned against a backlash that would harm efforts to help those escaping a bloody conflict that has raged for more than four years now.

J.D. McCrary, executive director of the Atlanta-based International Rescue Committee, said refugees who arrive in the United States have made it through rigorous background checks that include vetting such as retinal scans, fingerprints and other bio data. The whole process typically lasts 18 to 24 months, he said.

“This is a 35 year-old program,” McCrary noted. “And in the history of the the program, no one who has gone through it has ever been arrested for domestic terrorism.”

Facing international pressure, the Obama administration announced in September that it would allow in at least 10,000 more displaced Syrians. Parts of Europe have been besieged by a tidal wave of refugees. Many are fleeing Syria which has become a stronghold for the Islamic State — or ISIS — which has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris that left 129 dead and hundreds more wounded. Jihadists there have been clashing with the administration of Bashar al-Assad. Nearly 1,900 Syrian refugees have resettled in the United States since 2011, when the civil war began.

In Georgia, a large number have landed in Clarkston, a DeKalb County city east of Atlanta that has become a hub for refugees.

Mayor Ted Terry of Clarkston on Sunday drew a sharp distinction between refugees resettling in the United States and those landing in Europe.

“There you have 1 million Syrian refugees simply walking across the European continent and resettling,” Terry said. “The Syrians we see arriving in Clarkston now have been waiting two years, sometimes three years, often at camps in Turkey.”

Refugees who have come to Clarkston have assimilated and become productive members of the community, he said.

“We shouldn’t let fear dictate what happens here,” he said.

But within some politically-conservative circles a more hawkish message emerged Sunday.

“The problem is not the background checks. The problem is we can’t background check them,” Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“You can’t pick up the phone and call Syria. And that’s one of the reasons why I said we won’t be able to take more refugees. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t.”

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has sounded a cautious note on refugees coming to Georgia, saying the state will be welcoming but adding "we want to make sure we're not taking a disproportionately large share of them compared to other parts of the country."

Georgia – the eight largest state with a population of 10 million – accepted the ninth largest number of refugees among states last fiscal year at 2,694. In all, nearly 70,000 refugees were resettled in the United States that year. Deal’s administration has asked the State Department to keep the number of refugees resettling in the Peach State “static” going into the next fiscal year.

Reports say that one of the Paris attackers posed as a Syrian migrant. He apparently passed through the Greek island of Leros on Oct. 3 and the Serbian border town of Presevo on Oct. 7, officials in those countries said. It was not clear whether the passport was authentic; the civil war that has sent millions of Syrians fleeing and fueled the rise of the Islamic State has also created a large black market for forged Syrian passports.

In Georgia, where a hard line on immigration is embraced in the Republican Party that control state government, the violence in France led to renewed calls for stricter border controls here at home.

“While the details are still being investigated, it appears that once again extremists have forged documents and used humanitarian-focused immigration policies against our allies,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “Sadly, this tragedy reinforces the need for secure borders, stringent immigration controls and effective anti-terrorism intelligence.”

“While our hearts break for families fleeing turmoil in their own country, we must be vigilant to protect our own borders,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

McKoon, however, staked out the toughest stance calling for a temporary halt to all incoming refugees.

“Until the federal government can demonstrate measures are in place to protect our citizens from the infiltration of ISIS terrorists in the refugee resettlement process it would be madness to allow resettlement to continue here,” he said.