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Pro-Syrian refugee activists invite Gov. Rauner to talk

Suzanne Akhras, director of the Syrian Community Network. Photo by Mitch Dudek.

A Syrian-American woman who acts as a conduit to help settle refugee families in Illinois made Gov. Bruce Rauner an offer Wednesday afternoon.

“We’d love to invite the governor to meet with us and meet with refugee families, and I think he will change his mind, and I think it will touch his heart, and he will take back his statement, I believe,” said Suzanne Akhras, director of the Syrian Community Network.

Rauner suspended allowing Syrian refugees into the state on Monday – even though governors have no power when it comes to immigration — pending, he said, “a full review of our country’s acceptance and security processes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”

Rauner’s decision came in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Akhras, a mother of three who lives in Burr Ridge with her husband, a physician, made her comments at a news conference held at the Uptown office of Refugee One, a refugee resettlement organization.

“Legally, no, the governor cannot interfere,” Melineh Kano, executive director of Refugee One, said Wednesday. “This is a federal program, but, you know, we’re hoping it’s not going to stop the flow of refugees, and we’re aiming for collaboration with the governor, and we’re talking to the governor’s office, and we’re hoping these individuals will be able to come, but no plans to bring them here have been altered or delayed,” Kano said.

Later Wednesday afternoon, a Rauner spokeswoman issued this statement:

“The Governor has been very clear – we need to preserve our heritage as a state welcoming of refugees while addressing the all-too-real security concerns that continue to evolve every day. A State Department official confirmed to our staff this morning that ISIS has demonstrated an interest in infiltrating refugee populations heading to the West.

“The official also confirmed that in recent years, some refugees admitted to the United States were later discovered to have terrorist ties. At the same time, we continue to request briefings from the federal government on refugees being resettled to Illinois before they come – and the federal government has no official information sharing mechanism to coordinate directly with Governors on such individuals.

“As California’s governor reportedly said to the White House chief of staff last night, the federal government must evolve with the threat and modernize their information sharing with state governments. This is a reasonable and responsible step to take to ensure we maintain a balance between compassion for refugees and security for our citizens.”

Kano said Wednesday that 21 Syrian refugees have been approved by the federal government to enter the United States and are currently waiting in other countries — such as Egypt and Lebanon — for travel and living arrangements to be finalized before coming to Illinois. It’s unclear how the process will play out in light of Rauner’s announcement.

In the 12-month period ending in July, 131 Syrian refugees were resettled in Illinois, mostly in the Chicago area, Kano said.

The refugee screening system in place is effective, Kano said.

Out of the approximately 800,000 refugees who have been resettled in the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only three individuals have been detained and questioned by authorities for questionable affiliations — detainments that have not resulted in convictions, she said.

“We have the track record to prove that it’s a tight system,” she said.

Jessica H. Darrow, a University of Chicago lecturer who has made a career out of studying refugee issues, said that attempting to use refugee status as a ruse for terrorist activity would be extremely hard to do.

“These people end up in a camp type setting with nothing, in a tent, sometimes for 10 years at a time,” she said. “It’s a pretty tough journey to travel and have that be a false route.”

She also said security screeners rely on skepticism until proven wrong when examining the back stories of potential refugees. Screeners, she said, look at it like this: “OK, you’re here in this chair trying to game the system and gain access to our country under false premises, and we’re going to believe that until you can prove to us that you’re not lying.”

Darrow said the situation in Europe and that in the United States is an apples-and-oranges comparison in that European countries are trying to block waves of unmanaged migrations, where as the United States has a vetting system in place that is very deliberate and plays out over the course of several years.

A variety of federal agencies work together on screening refugees: the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defense.

Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. have been children; a quarter are adults over 60. By design, only about two percent are single males of combat age.

The Obama White House went on the offensive on Tuesday in briefing reporters, governors and Congress on the details of the extensive screening all refugees are subjected to, with extra scrutiny applied to Syrians.

Kano said on Wednesday that the world is watching and the United States leads the way.

“We are a beacon of hope for the world and we do set trends and this is the wrong trend and the wrong message to send to the world,” she said.