Politics & Government

Kansas House committee approves refugee resettlement bill

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With members worried that the federal government can’t properly vet refugees coming to the state, a Kansas House committee on Thursday narrowly approved a bill that allows a one-year moratorium on refugee resettlements.

The committee voted 12-10 to recommend passage in the Kansas House, but opponents said the bill sends the wrong — and un-Christian — message about the state’s stance on refugee resettlement.

The ACLU of Kansas called the bill unconstitutional and discriminatory.

The measure creates a state office for refugees and authorizes Gov. Sam Brownback to appoint a state refugee coordinator.

The bill allows local governments to request a moratorium of up to one year on refugee resettlements if the community lacks the capacity to handle the refugees. A public hearing would be held on the moratorium request.

“It opens the door for mischief that is quite concerning to me,” said Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, questioning whether communities could use the moratorium to try to keep out certain refugees.

Hineman said his faith exhorts him “to welcome the stranger with kindness, compassion and Christian love.”

The measure also allows the governor to direct the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to investigate crimes by or against refugees. The state refugee office and coordinator would keep data from the federal government and meet quarterly with local governments.

Rep. Joseph Scapa, R-Wichita, said the bill codifies coordination by local and state governments with the federal government in resettling refugees and provides a way for state government to oversee the process.

Federal officials have acknowledged that they lack information on refugees coming from Syria, he said.

“This is not a ban on refugees,” Scapa said. “This is a common-sense way to help us see that the federal regulations are being abided by. This is a bill that allows us to have some control.”

Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, said the bill is preempted by federal law, which has sole authority over refugee resettlement. And it’s discriminatory, he said in a written statement, because it could deny public services to people living in Kansas on the basis of who they are and where they come from.

This week, he said, a federal judge granted a request by a refugee resettlement organization in Indiana for a preliminary injunction that blocks Gov. Mike Pence from taking any action to interfere with the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Kubic said the House should reject “this legally problematic, unconstitutional, discriminatory and hateful bill.”

Several members of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee said they struggled with their vote.

Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Shawnee, who voted in favor of the bill, said he also is called by his faith to have compassion for refugees. If the bill banned refugees or members of an entire religion, he said, “I would be 100 percent against it. That’s not what this bill does.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, told committee members that the $1.4 million cost to implement the bill was reason enough to defeat it, given the state’s finances. In a report released Tuesday, February tax receipts were $53 million below estimates. The current budget has only $6 million in reserve.

“We flat-out cannot afford to do this,” Clayton said.

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld