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Public Safety Committee opts to welcome refugees

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

In news that will surprise roughly no one, the City Council Public Safety Committee has dismissed a resolution to stand with Gov. Greg Abbott and rhetorically ban Syrian refugees from entering Austin.

The committee voted against the resolution and in favor of the statement “We are welcoming of all refugees in Austin.” Council members Greg Casar and Ora Houston voted in favor of the revised statement, and Council Member Don Zimmerman voted in opposition. Council Member Leslie Pool was absent.

The proposed resolution, embedded below, would have asked the city manager to “fully comply with the sentiments expressed” in Abbott’s November letter to President Barack Obama. It also would have prohibited city agencies and departments from taking any action or spending any city funds that “would facilitate the resettlement of Syrian ‘refugees’ within the jurisdiction of the City of Austin, Texas.”

The notion that governors can ban refugees from their states has been debunked, but debate over the issue continues. As chair of the Public Safety Committee, Zimmerman was able to extend that debate in Austin slightly by placing his resolution on the agenda without a co-sponsor.

He found no support among his fellow committee members, who spoke against the resolution without equivocation.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think this debate is about facts,” said Casar. “It’s about politics and using the people that you serve as a political tool. I’m sorry to see that happening today.”

Houston said that she was “going to err on the side of humanity” and vote against the resolution.

“I understand some people’s concerns about the Other in our midst; however, I am more concerned about those mass murderers and domestic terrorists that were born in our United States and have the ability to move freely from state to state and to kill innocent people to make a statement,” said Houston. “I feel that we have a compassionate obligation to care for other people who are part of the human race regardless of their ethnicity, culture, background or affiliation.”

At Monday’s meeting, committee members heard from people on both sides of the issue. Those who spoke against the resolution worked for Caritas of Austin, which has been helping to settle refugees in the city since 1974. They tried to clear up any misconceptions about the refugee process, which they described as rigorous, lengthy and highly regulated and unlikely to attract terrorists.

Caritas Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn was blunt. “If you are a terrorist and you are trying to get into this country and you want to come through using the refugee system, you’re not a very smart terrorist,” said Quinn. “Terrorists are not coming through the refugee process. The people running from terrorists are coming through the refugee process.”

Those who spoke in favor of Zimmerman’s resolution did so from a military background and warned that the threat of terrorism was real, and that welcoming Syrians to Austin could have dire consequences. Their testimony led Zimmerman to question “something he had struggled with in this whole debate,” he said.

“We have homegrown suicidal killers – mass murderers – that show up at a movie theater, they show up at some public place, and they just start killing people. These homicidal maniacs are homegrown. They are born here, speak our language, go to our schools, play our video games, and we can’t vet our own homegrown potential killers,” said Zimmerman. “How do we vet people from a foreign country?”

Prior to the committee meeting, Mayor Steve Adler publicly denounced the idea of denying entrance to refugees in a Facebook post that read, “Helping those in need and ensuring the safety of Austinites are not mutually exclusive goals. It’s okay for us to accept refugees because it’s safe. Syrian refugees undergo the toughest background check of anyone entering this country. And the folks at the front of the line are women, children and the elderly. This is about the most vulnerable. Austin welcomed Katrina evacuees and rushed to help the families from Central and South America fleeing violence. That’s the kind of city we are and I want the rest of the world to know.”

Adler later expanded on his statement in an article that he penned for The Texas Tribune.

Photo by Anne Swoboda made available through a Creative Commons license.

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