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Once 'welcoming,' Hillsborough County now debates taking in Syrian refugees

TAMPA — This summer the Hillsborough County Commission unanimously voted to designate the county as "welcoming" to refugees. Now that has become a contentious issue after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.

Commissioner Stacy White said he now has reservations about Hillsborough joining "Welcoming Cities and Counties," a national program that helps localities improve outreach and helps refugees who relocate to the United States.

Commissioners voted in August to join, becoming the first Florida county to do so.

Echoing concerns from Gov. Rick Scott, White, a Republican, said he was worried that Syrian refugees who relocate could be "a Trojan horse situation" where Islamic State "sympathizers are intermixed with the refugee groups."

He said Hillsborough should take a step back and make sure that "even by carrying that designation … we're not opening ourselves up to a security issue."

But in a letter this week to constituents voicing similar concerns, Commission Kevin Beckner, a Democrat, defended the "Welcoming Cities and Counties" program. He said it would have no bearing on the number of Syrian refugees who are ultimately relocated to Hillsborough County.

That decision lies with the federal government, Beckner noted, and nothing Hillsborough can do will change that.

His letter went to a handful of constituents who angrily emailed his office about refugees moving here. In it, he also criticized those who, in recent days, have said the United States should refuse to assist refugees fleeing the violence and deprivations of the Syrian civil war.

Civilians are regularly targeted in that nearly 5-year-old war, especially by the Islamic State. About 200,000 have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations, and nearly half of Syria's prewar population of 22 million has been displaced. About 3 million have fled to other countries. President Barack Obama plans to open the United States to 10,000 of them.

"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."

Enlisting as a "Welcoming County" didn't mean Hillsborough committed to taking on more refugees. Nor did it allocate resources to assisting refugees.

Rather, the designation signaled that the county was committed to adopting policies that promote inclusion for refugees. Through the program, counties participate in three conference calls a year with officials from other "Welcoming" localities to learn best practices for helping refugees.

Due to its size and diverse population, Hillsborough has traditionally taken in a high number of refugees. From October 2014 through September, 36 Syrian refugees relocated to Hillsborough, more than any other county in the state.

Beckner's letter also outlined all the national security checks refugees must pass to gain acceptance into the United States, a process that can take up to two years, he wrote.

White was not swayed by that argument. "Frankly, I don't always trust the federal government," he said.

Hillsborough Diversity Advisory Council chairman Hung Mai, a well-known Republican activist, stood by the council's August recommendation to join "Welcoming Cities and Counties." Mai, a refugee himself who left communist Vietnam in 1978, said the origin country of the refugee should not matter.

"I believe we should have an open arm to them," Mai said.

Times staff writer Katie Mettler contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.