COLUMBIA, S.C. – A bill requiring state police to track refugees coming to South Carolina and to hold their sponsors liable for damages if they commit an act of terrorism is on its way to the floor of the state Senate.
A Senate committee approved the measure on Wednesday. A spokesman for an organization focused on protecting the civil rights of Muslims said South Carolina is the first state he knows of that has proposed such a registry.
The proposal has wide support among conservative Republicans, but its future could be bleak. Two Democrats on the General Committee voted against it Wednesday, with one of them blocking floor debate. A Republican who initially supported the bill said she could not support a provision requiring that refugees' addresses be placed on an Internet registry.
"Everybody doesn't need to know where they live," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
The ongoing civil war in Syria has created thousands of refugees and European countries have placed pressure on the United States 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 slip through or become radicalized when they get to this country. The U.S. House passed a bill requiring new FBI background checks and individual sign-offs from three high-ranking federal officials before any refugee from Syria or Iraq could come to the United States.
Governors and attorneys general in a number of conservative states have asked the federal government to not put refugees in their states. But South Carolina appears to be the first state to take Legislative action.
State backers of the move got a boost from Republican U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney, who accepted invitations to speak.
Mulvaney spoke about efforts at the national level to tighten the vetting process for Syrian refugees seeking to enter the United States.
"If you let in the wrong Irishman, the downside is really not that serious. You let in the wrong Syrian refugee — one — and people could die," Mulvaney said.
The issue popped up in the state in the first week of the legislative session, and some senators wanted to push measures through immediately. Instead, they were sent to the General Committee, which has held four hearings in 13 days to get the bill back to the Senate floor quickly.
Democratic Sen. Kevin Johnson was there for all the hearings, and said he was saddened that people didn't realize nearly all refugees are fleeing terrorism and only want the chance for a new life and success in America. The Democrat from Manning, who is black, said he had a new appreciation of what his grandparents and great-grandparents went through in the segregated South.
"They were told the same thing," Johnson said. "We don't want you in our state. We don't want you in our neighborhood. We don't want you in our schools. All you want to do is kill, rape, steal, whatever."
The bill would require any refugees relocating into South Carolina to register with the Department of Social Services within 30 days. The social welfare agency would share that information with the State Law Enforcement Division, which would track the refugees. The bill requires any groups helping to settle refugees in South Carolina to be liable if any refugee commits an act of terrorism.
The proposal is another ugly attempt to paint all Muslims as supporting violence and disruption, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"It raises all kinds of questions, legally and ethically, when you treat a religious minority like they were sex offenders," Hooper said.
Hooper said South Carolina is the first state he knows of that has proposed such a tracking registry for refugees.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson asked Duncan why he supports registering refugees and not taking any steps toward gun control when what he called domestic terrorists kill many more people on American soil in mass shootings, including nine shot to death in a Charleston church in the Democrat's district.
"I don't consider them domestic terrorists. I consider them deranged individuals," Duncan said.
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