Kansas is withdrawing from the federal government’s refugee resettlement program over safety concerns, Gov. Sam Brownback announced Tuesday after taking what could be a largely symbolic action to show displeasure with President Barack Obama’s administration.
Brownback’s move means the state will reject between $1.6 million and $1.8 million a year in federal funds to provide cash benefits and health care coverage to refugees. Brownback told the director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement earlier this month that he wanted the withdrawal to be effective “at the earliest possible date.”
But the Republican governor’s letter, dated April 19, came less than a week after another federal official told him that if Kansas withdrew from the program, federal officials would work directly with local agencies to provide help and, “refugees will continue to arrive in the state.” Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, wrote Brownback on April 13, saying the state’s withdrawal would have “no effect” on the placement of refugees or their benefits.
HHS spokesman Kevin Griffis said Tuesday in an email: “Not all states participate in the administration of the refugee resettlement program, and refugee resettlement will continue in Kansas, coordinated by nonprofit organizations.”
Like other Republican governors, Brownback has been a strong critic of the Democratic president’s decision last year to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in the U.S. Brownback contends the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to ensure that potential terrorists are kept out of the country.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Republican, took the same action earlier this month.
Since Oct. 1, 354 refugees have been resettled in Kansas, and five of them were from Syria, according to the state Department for Children and Families. Another eight Syrian refugees settled in Kansas from January through September 2015.
Brownback’s office released a copy of Greenberg’s letter on April 13, as well as 15 other documents meant to show that the governor has repeatedly sought assurances that refugees were being thoroughly screened.
In November, after attacks in Paris, Brownback issued an executive order to bar state agencies from helping Syrian refugees. In January, he expanded it to cover assistance to “refugees that present a safety and security risk.”
“While our preference would have been to preserve the State’s long history of participation in the refugee resettlement program, that is no longer possible in the current security environment,” Brownback wrote in an April 25 letter to Robert Carey, director of the federal office of Refugee Resettlement.
The New York-based International Rescue Committee, which provides services to refugees in Kansas, said it will continue to resettle them in the state. Jennifer Sime, a senior vice president for the group, said in a statement that Brownback’s action “is completely out of touch with local communities’ overwhelming support and embrace of refugees.”
And Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said Brownback’s announcement is a “symbolic statement” because the state will find local groups to “step into the void.” He said in the short term, as federal officials adjust, groups may find it harder to help refugees – and refugees may struggle to get assistance.
“You still couldn’t stop refugees from crossing the state line,” he said. “The federal government is the one who gets to decide when and where and how refugees get resettled.”
Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the governor has strong compassion for refugees but is taking the only action available without “the assurances we need as a state” from federal officials about screening refugees.
“This is not an action the governor takes lightly,” Hawley said. “There comes a time when you have to take a stand.”