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Exodus: Syrian refugees ‘not who Pence and others claim’

October 4, 2016

Fresh off a defeat of Gov. Mike Pence’s effort to bar Syrian war victims from settling in Indiana, the leader of a refugee resettlement program said the agency’s work assisting them will continue.

“They’re a bit confused by it, as we all are,” Cole Varga, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc., said, “because they’re not who Pence and others claim they are. They’re not terrorists. They’re just young families who have had to flee for their lives and are seeking the same safety and the same protections and the same futures for their children that any of us do in Indiana.”

Varga spoke Tuesday at a news conference alongside attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. ACLU of Indiana represented Exodus, which sued Pence after he announced he would suspend federal money to assist Syrian refugees settling in Indiana. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt Pence a defeat Monday, affirming a district court ruling that the policy violated federal law because it discriminated on the basis of national origin.

“We’re going to continue serving this population,” Varga said. “One of the most important things we do as a country is to welcome people in their time of need and at Exodus, of course, we are incredibly proud to take this stand for the state of Indiana and to open up hospitality that the Hoosier state is known for.”

ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said the state could ask for a rehearing or rehearing en banc within 14 days of Monday’s order, seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court within 90 days, let the case return to the district court to proceed on the merits, “or, that last option, which is the option we obviously hope, which is that the state at this point gives up,” he said. “From day one, I think most people recognized this was exactly what Judge (Tanya Walton) Pratt and the 7th Circuit yesterday recognized it to be — blatant discrimination based on nationality which is prohibited not just by federal law, but by the United States Constitution.”

Pence, now the Republican candidate for vice president, will debate Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia Tuesday night. A reporter asked Falk about the timing and possible political implications of the 7th Circuit ruling. “We don’t control the timing obviously. This may or may not be an issue tonight, we’ll have to listen and see, but we are lawyers, so we deal with that side of the equation and not the politics side,” he said.

“Lost in all this fighting, I think, is the fact that these are people who have come to Indiana out of horrific situations to start new lives, to become productive members of our state, and for reasons known only to the state, the state was willing to try and stop that from happening,” Falk said. “And I think Exodus and the other agencies in Indiana that serve these refugees deserve an enormous amount of credit for doing a very difficult job and a job that I think all of us think is a necessary job given the horror that’s going on in the world.”

Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks declined to say whether the governor would proceed with an appeal of a case that the federal courts have said Pence is unlikely to win.  “We’re continuing to evaluate the ruling,” Brooks said in an email Monday night. The office of Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller in an email said it would review the opinion with Pence and decide on next steps by appropriate court deadlines. It referred requests for comment to Pence’s office.

After the ruling, Brooks issued a statement that said, “The safety and security of the people of Indiana is Governor Pence’s highest priority. The state of Indiana took decisive action last year to suspend resettlement of Syrian refugees after the terrorist attack in Paris and because the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged security gaps with regard to screening refugees from Syria. In addition, as recently as September 21, the State Department spokesman is quoted as saying he ‘wouldn’t debate the fact that there’s the potential for ISIS terrorists to try to insert themselves’ into the refugee program.”

But the 7th Circuit said the state’s brief contains no evidence terrorists are posing as Syrian refugees and there’s no record of a Syrian refugee ever being arrested or prosecuted for terrorist acts or attempts in the U.S.

“I do think this decision points out the fact that although there was resistance — verbal and I guess written resistance from governors around the country about the influx of Syrian refugees — it was only Gov. Pence who took this next unlawful step” of seeking to withhold federal funding to assist them, Falk said. “I wish that had not been done, and I wish that this population of refugees, most of whom are women and children and disabled persons, did not have to deal with the potential of being treated this way.”

Falk said the amount of aid Exodus receives from the federal program Pence sought to suspend for Syrian refugees amounted to about $1 million for all the refugee populations it serves. As a small organization, losing that source of funding would have been difficult, he said. But because Pratt issued an injunction blocking Pence from withholding funds, Exodus lost no money.

Varga said Exodus has assisted with the resettlement of 142 Syrians in the past two years as the U.S. met its goal at the close of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 of admitting 10,000 refugees. He said those numbers likely will increase.

“Despite having to face persecution at home and having to flee for their lives and arriving in Indiana to face a governor who doesn’t want them there, they’re actually staying quite positive and have been very respectful of the entire process,” Varga said.

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