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Withdrawal of Florida from federal refugee program passes House committee

Rubycellia Salnero, Anthony Salnero, 6 months, Angel Salnero, 9, of Tampa pray at a special church service at the Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon on Feb. 1. 

The Diocese of St. Petersburg held a prayer vigil for migrants and refugees led by Rev. Gregory L. Parkes, Bishop of St. Petersburg, with an estimated 1,000 people in attendance from around the community.

Many in our community and throughout the country are experiencing fear and anxiety in response to President Trump. On Thursday, a Florida House committee passed a bill that would withdraw state participation in a federal program that resettles refugees. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]

Rubycellia Salnero, Anthony Salnero, 6 months, Angel Salnero, 9, of Tampa pray at a special church service at the Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon on Feb. 1. The Diocese of St. Petersburg held a prayer vigil for migrants and refugees led by Rev. Gregory L. Parkes, Bishop of St. Petersburg, with an estimated 1,000 people in attendance from around the community. Many in our community and throughout the country are experiencing fear and anxiety in response to President Trump. On Thursday, a Florida House committee passed a bill that would withdraw state participation in a federal program that resettles refugees. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers took their first step Thursday toward removing Florida from the refugee resettlement program amid charges that the federal government was not an effective partner with state law enforcement.

A state House subcommittee voted 9-5 along party lines for legislation (HB 427) to pull out of the refugee program.

With refugees at the center of national debate over President Donald Trump's travel ban, pulling out of the program has been called a political move.

But doing so would not end the flow of refugees to the state. Rather than state officials coordinating a $250 million federal program in Florida, federal officials would partner with nonprofits in the state.

State Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, filed the legislation, saying that Floridians were at risk because state law enforcement agencies don't receive enough information about refugees before they arrive here. Refugees face a lengthy vetting process that can take two years but is conducted by the United Nations and several federal agencies, not state law enforcement.

"It's sending a message to the federal government to let them know that if this is going to be a partnership, it needs to be a mutual partnership," Santiago said. "This is pushing toward an action that we need to be true partners."

The fear is that a terrorist might pose as a refugee to gain entrance to the country.

However, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents told lawmakers there have been zero instances of a refugee committing an act of terrorism in the state, and there are few documented cases in other states.

In fact, experts said, Florida could actually lose access to the limited information its Department of Children and Families currently receives by leaving the refugee program.

"If this bill were to pass, the consultation that does occur now and has for quite some time would be cut off completely," said Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Democrats say Santiago's bill, which comes as refugees are a controversial political topic nationally, is politically motivated and will have no real impact on security in the state.

"The bill does not prevent the federal government from sending refugees here," Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, said. "What the bill does is it sends red meat to the base of a political party in order to justify future elections.

The minority party has several times this year criticized House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, on refugee issues.

This week, Rep. Bobby Dubose, D-Ft. Lauderdale, sent a letter asking for further details following a recent TV appearance when Corcoran claimed it was likely ISIS had infiltrated Florida's refugee program. Corcoran has not yet replied to that letter, according to the House Democratic Office.

If the state were to pull out of the federally funded program, officials in Washington would partner with nonprofits in the state instead of using the Department of Children and Families. That's what happened in Texas after it left the refugee program late last year.

Florida charities that are involved in providing services to refugees say that would complicate their work and could create new expenses as they negotiate with insurance plans and manage a the largest refugee program in the country.

"I don't think there have been any complaints about how DCF is doing its job right now," said Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose charitable arm serves refugees in the state. "We'd rather not have to go through creating another duplicative system today."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Withdrawal of Florida from federal refugee program passes House committee 02/16/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2017 8:48pm]
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