From the Field

Legislating refugees’ fate in South Carolina

Manzoor Cheema • Aug 17, 2016
An illustration of the South Carolina flag on a blue brick wall. Source: Getty Images
An illustration of the South Carolina flag on a blue brick wall. Source: Getty Images

Emma Lazarus’ words, etched onto the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, have become a rallying call for the supporters of immigrant and refugee rights.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Yet many in this nation are much less welcoming of immigrants and refugees. In South Carolina, public officials have embraced anti-refugee sentiment.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley joined 30 governors across the nation demanding a halt to Syrian refugees’ resettlement in their respective states. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on November 16, 2015, Haley wrote:

“In the aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attack on Paris, which took the lives of at least 129 innocent people and injured 352 more, reports surfaced that at least one of the attackers entered France by claiming to be a refugee hoping to escape the conflict in Syria.”

Haley continued, “Therefore, until I can be assured that all potential refugees from Syria have no ties to terrorist organizations, I am requesting that the State Department not resettle any Syrian refugees in South Carolina.”

A few months later, South Carolina State Senator Kevin Bryant co-sponsored Senate Bill 997, which called for starting a registry of refugees resettled in South Carolina. The bill included a draconian threat against resettlement agencies, which would make the agencies liable for any crimes committed by refugees. Senator Bryant emphasized that, “We are protecting South Carolina citizens’ safety.

Opposition from Democrats, led by Rep. James Smith, successfully stalled the bill in the South Carolina House.  Smith is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He helped one of his unit’s translators resettle in the United States as a refugee. Speaking on the floor, Rep. Smith said, “The simple fact of passing this bill sends an atrocious message around the world of who we are as Americans.”

South Carolina’s anti-refugee measure has attracted condemnation throughout the nation. Writing in the Washington Post, faith leaders Mark Hetfield and Jack Moline reminded South Carolina of its legacy for refugee rights:

“South Carolina became a pioneer in providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing religious persecution with the March 1, 1669, Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina protecting the rights of “Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion.” This included a Charleston community of Sephardic Jews, who finally found sanctuary after generations of roaming the globe following their expulsion from Spain.”

As we witness crises that are destroying societies around the world, our country should open its doors to those fleeing oppression and persecution.

Manzoor Cheema is the Defending Democracy Fellow at the Center for New Community.  

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