SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner says his moratorium attempting to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Illinois is simply a request for the Obama administration to “take a deep breath” and tighten the review process to make sure Washington shares necessary information with the states.
Rauner is among more than half of U.S. governors who have signaled resistance to taking the refugees, expressing safety concerns after the deadly attacks in Paris earlier this month. The federal government and resettlement groups question the states’ authority to block the refugees and defend the laborious process they already go through to relocate.
Here are some things to know about the refugee issue in Illinois:
The federal government provides the vast majority of funding to states for refugee relocation. In Illinois recently, it was about $11 million a year, according to the state departments of Human Services and Public Health. Some state money is spent, but only through existing social services that an incoming family needs, DHS spokeswoman Veronica Vera said.
An Associated Press analysis of state records shows that since 2012, Illinois has appropriated $55 million in federal money for refugee services and spent $33 million, or 60 percent of it.
Despite the fact that Rauner and legislative Democrats have been unable to agree on a budget for state spending, in August they did approve spending authority to free up billions of dollars in such federal “pass-through” money, including for refugees.
The state spent $1.3 million in refugee aid from August through mid-November, mostly for housing and food. A governor may order a state agency to stop spending from any part of its budget, but it’s unclear in this case how an agency would be able to differentiate what dollars support refugees from which countries.
According to federal statistics provided to the Department of Human Services, 169 Syrian refugees have begun calling Illinois home since 2010 — 131 of those just this calendar year, with most taking up residence in Chicago. The rest have gone to Aurora, Rock Island and Rockford. Overall, Illinois has welcomed more than 2,200 refugees from around the world in 2015.
Hakam Subh has lived in Chicago since April. He said it took more than two years from the time he applied for refugee status to the time he learned he was on his way to America. The 35-year-old told the AP through a translator that as a Sunni Muslim, he feared for his and his family’s safety, even during trips to the market in Hama, Syria.
American officials battered Subh and his wife with questions, once interviewing them separately.
Like Subh, 26-year-old Mohama Alsankan was closely questioned. Twice in six months he was required to detail his family history and why he wanted to leave. He lived in the outskirts of Damascus and said he believed he was in danger, particularly after participating in anti-war demonstrations in 2012.
“We miss our country,” Alsankan said through an interpreter. “But it’s not safe there.”
Those arriving in the U.S. now have been in the pipeline for as long as three years because of the detailed U.S. Department of Homeland Security screening process, said Deborah Hlavna, co-director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center in Champaign.
“Immigration [officials], they’re not warm and fuzzy,” Hlavna said. “They know what’s going on. They speak the language. You can’t easily pull the wool over their eyes.”
Rauner is concerned about cracks in the vetting process and that Islamic State group terrorists might be infiltrating the refugees.
“What many of us have asked of the Obama administration is to take a pause,” Rauner said. “Let’s take a deep breath, focus on the vetting process, what are the gaps, what are the shortcomings, what can we do to improve it?”
Rauner appeared to soften his position on his planned moratorium this week. He said his conversations with the White House have been about making sure state officials are kept apprised of who’s coming — and when.
“If we’re going to protect the people of Illinois and the people of America we need governors cooperating, we need the federal government cooperating,” Rauner said.
When asked whether he could legally bar anyone from entering the state, Rauner mentioned “many legal options” without giving specifics.
Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said the only thing a governor can do is refuse to spend the resettlement money offered by Washington. If it’s not spent, he said, “that could have consequences for the state receiving such funding in the future.”
Associated Press writers Sara Burnett and Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.