Commissioner Beckner defends Hillsborough's 'Welcoming County' program amid Syrian refugee debate
TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner reached out to concerned citizens Wednesday to clarify that the county has no say in whether Syrian refugees settle here, despite a recent resolution that designated Hillsborough a “Welcoming County.”
After a handful of angry and concerned calls and emails in the wake of the Paris attacks, Beckner sent a letter to constituents explaining that the “Welcoming Cities and Counties” program Hillsborough joined this summer merely acknowledged that Hillsborough would be more inclusive and improve outreach toward refugees assigned to relocate here. It didn’t, however, mean Hillsborough was committed to taking on more refugees.
Nevertheless, Beckner, who was vocal in encouraging the county to join the program, was critical of the resistance to helping refugees fleeing oppression, violence and terrorists in Syria.
“Some of our core principles and values as Christians and Americans include helping individuals escape from tyranny, persecution and inhumane treatment,” Beckner wrote. “While we must remain vigilant and united in our efforts to protect our community from radical extremists who commit acts of terrorism, we cannot allow our vigilance to turn into vigilantism against an entire religion and culture.”
Beckner's email also outlined the extensive vetting process to enter the United States as a refugee.
"The process takes up to two years, and is much more thorough than that of Europe, where geography and proximity make it possible for refugees to walk, swim, drive, bicycle, and fly across borders on the continent, resulting in the entry of asylum-seekers into the country without a vetting process," Beckner said. "There is no comparison between Europe and the U.S. in this instance."
In August, Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously to become the first Florida county to join the Welcoming Cities and Counties program. The designation meant that the county would draft a resolution declaring it welcoming (that passed in September) and indicated that the county was committed to adopting policies that promote inclusion. Through the program, a county designee will also participate in three conference calls a year with officials from other “Welcoming” localities.
There was no cost associated with the program.
From Oct. 2014 through September, 36 Syrian refugees settled in Hillsborough, more than any other county in the state.
Gov. Rick Scott joined Republican governors earlier this week and opposed relocating any more Syrian refugees to Florida. However, the federal government dictates where refugees are resettled.
Here’s the full text of Beckner’s letter.
You are receiving this message in response to either a phone call, email or snail mail opposing the acceptance of refugees to our community and/or the Welcoming County resolution recently passed by the Board of County Commissioners.
As a former police officer, Christian and proud American who has many family members and friends that serve in our armed forces, I share your concerns. Protecting our community and country against radical extremism and acts of terror is of paramount importance. Know that your local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are working diligently to keep you and all residents safe from harm.
I thought it would be helpful to provide you some facts around the Welcoming Cities and Counties project and about refugees, in general:
Hillsborough County did pass a resolution in September of this year agreeing to participate in the Welcoming Cities and Counties project, based on the recommendations of the Diversity Advisory Council (DAC). This Council facilitates communication between County government and diverse populations, addressing matters related to diversity that are important to everyone.
As a Welcoming County, we simply agreed to the following:
Advance a county-level resolution declaring our locality to be a welcoming one
Adopt policies and practices that promote inclusion within local government and the broader community
Join a cohort of cities and communities that have pledged to become more welcoming
Appoint at least one key local government staff contact for the project
Participate in three conference calls a year to share and learn from other Welcoming Cities and Counties
Participate in an annual in-person meeting with other Welcoming Cities and Counties (dependent upon available travel resources)
There is no cost associated with our participation.
Some facts about refugees:
Refugees are defined as individuals who have been forced to flee their home country due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.
Resettlement of refugees is governed by federal law. State and local officials have no jurisdiction over refugees entering our country.
The Department of Children and Families’ Refugee Services Program is 100% federally funded and its clients have legal immigration status before they arrive in the United States.
To find refuge in the United States, applicants must go through an extensive 13-step process, including background and security checks and interviews with representatives from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of State (DOS), and the Department of Defense (DOD).
Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.
The process takes up to two years, and is much more thorough than that of Europe, where geography and proximity make it possible for refugees to walk, swim, drive, bicycle, and fly across borders on the continent, resulting in the entry of asylum-seekers into the country without a vetting process. There is no comparison between Europe and the US in this instance.
Some of our core principles and values as Christians and Americans include helping individuals escape from tyranny, persecution and inhumane treatment. While we must remain vigilant and united in our efforts to protect our community from radical extremists who commit acts of terrorism, we cannot allow our vigilance to turn into vigilantism against an entire religion and culture.
I have been committed to increasing awareness about the value of diversity since I was elected in 2008. When we openly affirm diversity, we unlock the full potential of all members of our community and brand Hillsborough County as inclusive and globally competitive.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner