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Why two states want to create registry of foreign refugees

Lawmakers in New York and South Carolina want to create a registry of refugees. In S.C., if refugees commit an act of terrorism, their sponsors, could be held liable.

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    In this photo made Monday, Nov. 29, 2015, Syrian refugee Maryam al Jaddou, center, looks on as her children twins Maria, left, and Hasan, sit with her at their apartment in Dallas. The 30-year-old al Bashar al Jaddou decided to leave Syria in 2012 after his family’s home in Homs was bombed and there was nowhere safe left to live.
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While Republican front-runner Donald Trump continues to make waves nationally for his comments about banning Muslims from traveling to the country, lawmakers in two very different states are proposing that all refugees register with the government.

Registration bills are being proposed in both New York State and in South Carolina, where if refugees commit an act of terrorism, their sponsors, under the bill, could be held liable.

The South Carolina lawmakers say they are less concerned about a possible constitutional challenge than a possible terrorist threat coming to the state.

Opponents, however, say the measure is out of character for a state that often espouses the importance of Christian hospitality and loving your neighbor.

"I want us to be who we have always been — a welcoming people," said Sen. Kevin Johnson, (D) of Manning, who is helping lead the fight against the bill.

Sponsoring Sen. Kevin Bryant said the bill has three components: a registry of all refugees; civil liability for sponsors of refugees from counties considered state sponsors of terror by the federal government (currently Iran, Sudan and Syria) for crimes committed by refugees; a prohibition on the state spending any money on refugees and their families.

Senator Bryant said the goal of the bill is to protect people's safety. Nearly 850 refugees from a number of countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East have come to South Carolina since 2010, with 87 arriving since last summer. The Anderson Republican said if only one of them were to conduct a terrorist attack it would be devastating.

Instead, he said people in South Carolina can show their compassion by giving to relief organizations that help refugees elsewhere.

"Why should we bring one refugee here when we could spend the same money and help 10 in their part of the world?" Bryant said.

A challenge to the South Carolina law is likely because the law singles people out by county of origin and seems bent toward discriminating against Muslims, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"If it is not illegal, it is at least un-American," Mr. Hooper said.

South Carolina senators debated the bill Wednesday and Thursday and would likely come back to it next Tuesday. Bryant is talking to Democrats about tweaking the proposal to allow some state money to be spent on refugee families, like for public education.

The bill was introduced as the ongoing civil war in Syria has created thousands of refugees and European countries have placed pressure on the U.S. to take in some of the people fleeing the violence. But terror attacks in Paris and California have heightened worries that refugees angry with the United States could get into the country.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, more than two dozen US state governors sought to block the arrival of Syrian refugees after those attacks. But the courts are not supporting such boycotts. And many US religious institutions have said that such moves are contrary to Judeo-Christian values. 

On Nov. 17, 81 organizations sent a letter to Congress, arguing that a moratorium on refugees "would jeopardize the United States' moral leadership in the world":

Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly the kind of terror that unfolded on the streets of Paris. They have suffered violence just like this for almost five years. ...To turn our back on refugees would be to betray our nation's core values. It would send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on the country they come from and their religion. This feeds into extremist propaganda and makes us all less safe.

The New York bill was introduced by state Sen. Terrence Murphy, a Republican who represents a district in the lower Hudson Valley.

It requires refugees to register with the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, be fingerprinted and have the office monitor their activities for year or until they become permanent residents, whichever happens first.

"While the state may lack the ability to block refugees from coming here, we do have the authority and responsibility to begin tracking who these people are, where they are coming from and to monitor the situation for potential threats," Murphy said when he introduced the bill.

But the New York Immigration Coalition, comprised of almost 200 groups that work with immigrants and refugees, has called on other senators to kill the measure, calling it a "heinous bill that treats refugees who are fleeing from violence and conflict like criminals."

Mike Bullock, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says there are no state registration laws on the books and the South Carolina and New York measures are the only two now proposed.

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Bruce Smith in Charleston contributed to this report.

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