Gov. Ige defends position on Syria: ‘I don’t have the authority to say yes or no’

Gov. David Ige

Gov. David Ige is clarifying the comments he made Monday about accepting Syrian refugees to Hawaii.

While he defended his position, the governor says his top priority is to tackle issues that Hawaii is facing.

“I don’t have the authority to say yes or no,” said Ige. “That decision is made at a different place, but I do know that our community does welcome newcomers to our islands.”

While many governors have opposed the decision to allow Syrian refugees into the United States, despite the federal government having the final say, Ige was one of more than a handful who supported the idea to allow Syrian Refugees into the United States.

“The state of Hawaii is a participant as are the other 49 other states that are participants and we will continue to be so,” said Ige.

After announcing his stance on the issue Monday, some have questioned his decision, asking is it safe? How thorough is the vetting process? And does Hawaii have the resources to help refugees?

“You know, I suppose in hindsight, I should probably be more thoughtful about my statements, but I understand that there are concerns about the safety of our communities,” said Ige.

The governor was quick to point out that the process to be admitted into the the United States is extensive and requires many checks by multiple agencies.

“It is a vigorous process that includes background checks and extensive vetting through all the different agencies, Homeland Security, FBI, law enforcement,” said Ige.

Since 2011, the U.S. has received more than 23,000 requests for refugee admission. Only 7,000 made it through screening and fewer than 2,000 of those refugees were granted access to the Unites States.

While his comments have sparked concerns, Gov. Ige says his priority continues to be keeping our community safe and addressing the current issues that the state is facing.

“We had a summit on homeless this morning where we are working at working with our partners in the county and the private sector to apply the resources that we need to address the challenges that homelessness presents,” said Ige.

There is financial assistance offered to refugees provided by the federal government. That assistance lasts about 11 months.

Ige says there is no news of any Syrian refugees heading to Hawaii at this time.


Watch the press conference in its entirety, and view the bulk of his comments below:

“I have heard from many the concern about focusing our resources to really address the needs of our community, and let me be very clear about that. This Syria issue is not of my making. It’s certainly not anything I’ve spent any significant time on other than responding to media requests, so thank you all for keeping me busy.

But we had a summit on homelessness this morning where we are working with our partners in the county and the private sector to apply the resources that we need. We believe it is necessary to address the homelessness situation in our community and we are making progress. So I did want to congratulate the private sector partners who participated. It’s too bad we didn’t have a better media turn out at that event because I definitely believe those issues are more important.

But it is about working together as a community to meet the needs of our community and it really is about getting everyone involved, city, state, county, private sector, to apply our resources to address the challenges that homelessness presents.

So let’s talk a little bit about Syrian refugees. A couple of facts. The state of Hawaii is a state of the United States of America and we do participate in a refugee relocation program that is run by the United Nations and the State Department. I don’t have the authority to say yes or no. I mean, that decision is made at a different place, but I do know that our community does welcome newcomers to our islands.

For a fact, in the last decade, 10 years, 21 refugees have been relocated to our community, here in the state of Hawaii and zero are from Syria. I’m not aware of any specific efforts or plans to relocate Syrian refugees to Hawaii, but there have been none in the past decade.

So I was on a conference call with other governors and the White House to talk about the refugees and the process, and again, I reiterate the priority of the president, the priority of every single governor across the country, is about the safety and security of our communities.

The White House did provide some statistics. Since 2011, there have been 23,000 requests for refugee status referred from the U.N. They’re the first point of demarcation. There is a vetting process that the U.N. goes through and there have been 23,000 or so requests for refugee admissions in the U.N. program. Of that number, 7,000 made it through the initial screening process that the U.S. uses. It’s a vigorous process that includes background checks and extensive vetting through all of the different agencies, Homeland Security, FBI, law enforcement. Of that 23,000 who sought refugee status, fewer than 2,000 were actually granted access to U.S.

Again, zero have been placed in Hawaii.

The process is a process that is defined and created by Homeland Security, the State Department, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and includes the Department of Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Human Services, and Customs and Border Protection. So it definitely is an inter-agency effort made to vet those that seek refugee status.

I do understand that it’s a different world that we live in today. That the specter of terrorists reaching into each and every community is a real possibility, regardless of all of our efforts to keep our communities safe. But let me assure you that we continue to work to offer those as appropriate the opportunity to flee from terrorism and war and oppression, and these refugees really are mothers, fathers and children that have been through horrific ordeals in their countries and do seek to relocate to the U.S. and the state of Hawaii is a participant as are all (other) 49 states are participants, and we will continue to be so.

I suppose in hindsight I should probably be more thoughtful about my statements. I understand that there are concerns about the safety of our communities. I was horrified by the actions taken in France last week and I think a lot about whether that can happen in Hawaii or anywhere in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world for that matter. I do understand that, but I also understand what happens when a community for whatever reason is discriminated against irresponsibly or with no basis. I mean, Japanese Americans were interned after the war and their property was taken. So it really is about remembering that we are a community that the overwhelming majority of our community, of the world community, are hard-working, peace-loving people, and that these terrorists are really on a war against humanity, and they do want to inflict and create terror in the minds of average citizens. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world that we live in.

There are people in Hawaii that share those beliefs today. I would think they’re a minority, but the constitution of the United States of America ensures us that every citizen has the right to pursue life, liberty and well-being, and I’m certainly committed to supporting that notion.

We are getting more information from the White House. I think the one comment that was universal across all governors is that we need to have more transparency on the process, and so that definitely was something that there was unanimous agreement on, and so we did request for information what the process is. We requested for information about services that would be made available from the federal government in terms of supporting the relocation of these refugees, and so when we get that information, we’ll be making it available.

I don’t think that there would be anything different that I would say. Clearly my message was focused on the safety and security of our community. I thought that I was pretty clear about that. I suppose I could have provided more clarity about the fact that we are part of the U.S. and that the refugee relocation is a program of the U.S., that we are participants regardless of whether we agree to or knowingly or actively seek to be.

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