(Gov.) Pence won’t block state aid to Syrian refugee family in Indianapolis


Robert King, Madeline Buckley and Vic Ryckaert

Gov. Mike Pence said Tuesday he will not block a Syrian refugee family from receiving state aid such as food stamps and health care, even as he continues to oppose its relocation to Indiana.

Pence’s comments at an airport news conference came one day after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis settled a Syrian refugee family in the city despite the governor’s recent announcement that, due to security concerns, he was halting state support for such relocation efforts.

Earlier Tuesday, Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin announced that a family of four who had “fled the violence of terrorists” had arrived Monday night after undergoing two years of security checks. The family was resettled in Indianapolis because they already have family living here, said Greg Otolski, archdiocese spokesman.

Nonprofit organizations typically handle resettlement, bolstered by federal funds given to the state for employment training, English language classes and case management services. But the ability of Catholic Charities to work around the state, using its own resources, highlights Pence’s limited ability to stop the resettlement.

Now that the Syrian family is here, Pence could have directed state agencies to deny the family food stamps and health care, but it would have been a path almost certain to draw legal challenges given such benefits are offered to people from other countries. On that issue, Pence said: “I have no intention of interfering with the ordinary administration of state government relative to people who are legally within the state of Indiana.”

Given his statement on aid, reporters asked Pence whether his opposition to the relocation of Syrian refugees was nothing more than symbolic. Pence said: “It is not symbolic in the least… I recognize Catholic Charities raised private dollars, but I have it in my power to suspend this program and suspend the resources.”

While Catholics and Mainline Protestants have been vocal about welcoming Syrian refugees, there has been more skepticism from the evangelical groups that are key to the political base of Pence, who was raised Irish Catholic before becoming a born-again Christian in college.

Arthur Farnsley, a professor in the religious studies department at IUPUI, said the diverging views are elemental to the Christian tradition, which has veins concerned primarily with security and the fight against evil and others more focused on welcoming strangers, and the care for others.

“We’re seeing two real strands of both sides coming out in this,” Farnsley said.

At his press conference, Pence said his own daughter had traveled to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and that his heart breaks for the families. But he said his faith informs him to keep his oath to protect the people. “I don’t think we have to choose between security and compassion,” he said.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said he respects the governor’s sense of responsibility for public safety but it is also important to welcome the Syrians, who are the victims of terrorism just as much as anybody. For Catholics, Jenkins said, that call is important.

“There is a deep tradition of welcoming the stranger, and particularly the victims of war and violence, and migrants,” Jenkins said. “It is deeply a part of the call of the gospel we all feel and try to respond to.”

Catholic Charities has resettled more than 400 refugees from 10 countries to Indiana this year.

Pence said he respects the work of Catholic Charities and he called Tobin, the Indianapolis archbishop, a friend and a mentor. But on this matter, he said he must “respectfully disagree” until he’s convinced ISIS terrorists won’t infiltrate the Syrian refugees program.

The governor and the archbishop met privately last week to discuss the response to the Syrian family’s plight. Pence emerged from that meeting holding his ground. Tobin said he would give careful consideration to the governor’s security concerns. In the end, Tobin sided with the Syrian family.

“This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians and we will continue this life-saving tradition,” Tobin said in his statement. A church spokesman, Greg Otolski, said Catholic Charities would apply for state benefits on behalf of the family. And the organization is accustomed to receiving state aid, getting more than $3-million in government grants in the year ending June 30, 2014. That was nearly half the charity’s budget.

For Pence, security concerns about Syrian refugees center on a handful of points. He and his office pointed to a statement from Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, who said the refugee program is vulnerable to extremists. He’s also concerned about reports that one of the perpetrators of the Paris terrorist attacks may have gotten to France by posing as a refugee from Syria.

At least 24 governors have made some efforts to stop Syrian refugees. In Texas, a Syrian family of six went to live Monday near relatives in the Dallas area against that governor’s wishes. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was in Washington Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to support a bill Cruz will introduce allowing governors to reject any refugees they deem to be a security risk.

The Obama administration has tried to assure governors who have raised objections that the vetting process for refugees is stringent. But Pence argues the administration still hasn’t addressed the fact that the heads of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have said they have less information about refugees from Syrian than those from Iraq.

Pence and Tobin get another chance to discuss the issue Wednesday. The archbishop is due at the governor’s residence for a previously-scheduled breakfast.

The Associated Press, Star Washington reporter Maureen Groppe and USA Today reporter Gregory Korte contributed to this story.