Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement that Washington state will welcome Syrian refugees drew both supporters and opponents Friday to the state Capitol.
About 250 people rallied at the Capitol calling for a halt to President Barack Obama’s program to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States, and asking for more vetting of refugees before they are sent to Washington state.
A similarly sized group of about 200 people converged on the Capitol to condemn the other protesters, holding a banner that read, “Welcome Refugees.”
When the group of refugee supporters approached the other demonstrators, attempting to shout over them, a handful of state troopers and Capitol grounds officials helped keep the groups separated.
Following last week’s attacks in Paris that killed about 130 people, more than half of U.S. governors have said they would seek to block Syrian refugees from relocating to their states.
But on Monday, Inslee announced that Washington state would not close its doors to refugees.
“Washington will continue to be a state that welcomes those seeking refuge from persecution, regardless of where they come from or the religion they practice,” Inslee said in a statement.
It’s unlikely the state Legislature or the governor have any say in the matter, however. In a letter to a group of Republican lawmakers Friday, Inslee acknowledged that “governors play no role in the process” of screening refugees, or choosing where in the United States they go.
Still, demonstrators with the group ACT for America on Friday decried Inslee’s stance on refugees as irresponsible. The protesters bore signs with messages such as, “No Refugees,” and “Why put us in danger.”
“This is not a time for haste,” said Virginia Coverdale, an Olympia-based organizer for the group ACT for America. “We know that our enemy is embedded in this migration.”
Investigators found a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers in Paris, fueling fears that ISIS — which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks — may be sending militants to other nations amid the flood of Syrian refugees.
Some state lawmakers spoke at the rally to voice their support for more thorough background checks for Syrian refugees that may come to Washington state.
State Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said he wants to propose legislation in January that would accept Syrian refugees in Washington only if they have been vetted to acceptable standards.
“This is just a very practical step, while recognizing the refugee crisis that has occurred and showing compassion for the people caught in the middle,” Shea said.
Yet a spokeswoman for Inslee said state officials can’t do much to change the federal government’s screening process, which the governor’s letter described as “a rigorous system.”
“It’s ultimately a decision of the U.S. State Department,” said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith.
Refugee supporters who gathered at the Capitol Friday accused the ACT for America protesters of racism and intolerance. Irene Hinkle, an Olympia resident who participated in Friday’s counter-demonstration, said refugees as a group shouldn’t be judged for the actions of others.
“I personally feel compelled to stand up for the rights of all humankind, and part of that is a belief that all people are innocent until proven guilty,” Hinkle said.