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Nebraska resettlement groups split on Ricketts' Syrian refugee request
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Nebraska resettlement groups split on Ricketts' Syrian refugee request

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Two of Nebraska's three refugee resettlement organizations said Tuesday they will not place a blanket ban on bringing Syrian refugees to the state, despite a request from Gov. Pete Ricketts that they do so.

"I'm not going to stop them from coming to Omaha for a chance to come out of persecution and start their new lives here," said Ann Marie Kudlacz, executive director of the Refugee Empowerment Center.

Catholic Social Services, which helps refugees in Lincoln, will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to help Syrian refugees come to Nebraska, said Lincoln Diocese spokesman JD Flynn. The group hasn't received any applications so far.

On Monday, Ricketts joined several other governors attempting to suspend resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states in response to Friday's deadly attacks in Paris, calling the attacks "a solemn reminder of the reach and strength of ISIS and their agents."

Ricketts argued during a press conference Tuesday that individual states should be involved in vetting Syrian refugees before they arrive. He also joined fellow governors in a conference call with a staffer for President Barack Obama and "urged the Obama administration to cooperate with states and to engage with governors in reviewing how we can improve refugee resettlement security screening," Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said.

"States need to be involved in that vetting and we are not," the governor said at Tuesday's news conference.

A handful of Syrian families already live in Lincoln and Omaha, including some who have been here for decades. That, in addition to the cities' reputation for accepting refugees, could increase the chance that more Syrians who have fled their war-torn country will come to Nebraska.

Some already have.

None of the refugee groups in Nebraska have settled Syrians here since civil war broke out in the country in 2011, but some Syrians have arrived in the state through other forms of legal immigration.

And because the governor's request isn't legally binding and doesn't stop nearby states from accepting Syrian refugees who can then simply drive to Nebraska, there is little Nebraska can do to prevent them from coming here.

The state Department of Health and Human Services distributes about $4.8 million a year in federal refugee resettlement funds, department spokeswoman Kathie Osterman said. That includes grants for cash assistance and medical and health screening, as well as money for employment and English language programs, health education, and payments to schools and senior centers in Lincoln and Omaha who assist refugee families.

The state hasn’t announced any plans to withhold those funds from groups if they choose to help Syrian refugees, but Osterman said HHS is “required to follow federal program funding requirements” when distributing the money.

Nebraska congressmen Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican, and Brad Ashford, a Democrat, on Monday added their names as cosigners of a House bill that would allow Congress to dictate the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. each year. The bill, called the Refugee Resettlement Oversight and Security Act, was first introduced in September.

“My first responsibility is to keep America safe,” Fortenberry said in a news release Tuesday. “A rapidly expanding Syrian refugee policy could create conditions for domestic tragedy. … We must not allow Paris to be repeated on our shores.”

Meanwhile, advocacy groups questioned the constitutionality of discriminating against Syrian refugees.

"Efforts to block refugee resettlement in their states blames refugees for the very terror they are fleeing and erodes our own civil liberties by violating our constitutional values of equal protection," Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said in a news release. "Profiling people based on their religion or race is unconstitutional and it is ineffective because it alienates targeted communities from law enforcement."

The federal government can choose the countries from which it will accept refugees, but once they arrive in the U.S., refugees are protected from discrimination under the Constitution, said Cecillia Wang, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project.

Lutheran Family Services, Nebraska’s third resettlement organization, which places refugees in Lincoln and Omaha, has said it will honor Ricketts' request but provided no further details.

Catholic Social Services spokesman Flynn said the group isn't rejecting the governor's request but said it will be just one factor in any decision about whether to assist Syrian refugees.

"We’re certainly taking (Ricketts') concern into consideration, but each case has to be evaluated individually," Flynn said.

He noted the "Christian martyrdom" of some Syrians who have lost their lives at the hands of ISIS fighters.

"That has to be a factor, too."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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