Amid heightened national debate over the resettlement of people fleeing the war in Syria, a divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to voice their willingness to welcome Syrian refugees.
The supervisors also voted to send a letter to President Obama and the county’s congressional delegation “expressing the board’s support of federal efforts to help Syrians fleeing violence and oppression and to increase the overall number of refugees that the U.S. will resettle over the course of the next two years.”
The question of how many refugees from Syria the United States will take in and where they will live has become politically charged in recent weeks. More than 30 state governors, mostly Republicans, have voiced concerns that extremists could infiltrate the United States and vowed to stop the refugees from settling in their states.
The Obama administration has argued that refugees undergo the most rigorous vetting process of any group admitted to the United States and is pushing to admit 10,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war in their homeland.
Some of that partisan division was evident as the county board voted Tuesday to take a symbolic stand to welcome Syrian refugees fleeing a humanitarian crisis that its resolution described as “arguably the largest since World War II.”
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post attributed a quote about gaps in the data available on refugees to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. The supervisor was quoting FBI director James Comey.
Knabe did not explain the reason for his abstention. Antonovich pointed to “a number of our federal government representatives and officials warning of a serious problem with the vetting processes that are in place” and pointed to recent comments by FBI Director James B. Comey about gaps in information available to authorities.
Last week, Antonovich was criticized by the Muslim community for declaring that when he heard about the mass shooting in San Bernardino that killed 14, “The first thing I asked about this incident, was the guy named Muhammad?” In later defending his remarks, Antonovich wrote in an email to The Times, “Radical Islamists have declared war on the United States.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the message of support for the refugees along with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, said the vetting process before they are allowed into the United States is “thorough, smart and effective.”
Ridley-Thomas pointed to the diversity of Los Angeles County and its workforce, including many people who come from refugee families.
“We simply choose to push back on every vestige of bigotry that threatens the best of what it means to celebrate democracy,” he said. “We should not tolerate racial antagonism, prejudice or bias in any shape, form or fashion in our own space.”
Kuehl added that it is the federal government's prerogative to decide who will be admitted.
Although the county does not make decisions directly about refugee admissions, the county's Department of Public Social Services, which runs social welfare programs for low-income residents, provides cash, food and medical benefits and welfare-to-work services to refugees resettled in the area.
Syrians currently represent a small portion of those. The department was providing aid to more than 18,300 refugees from 115 countries as of September, according to data provided by the agency. The largest share of those refugees — about 7,400 — came from Iran, followed by China, Armenia, Egypt and Iraq. The county was providing services to 279 Syrian refugees.
The dialogue about Syrian refugees has become more heated in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump going as far as to propose banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
The San Bernardino attack was carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, and his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, who entered the country on a so-called “fiance visa.” Authorities said the two had become “radicalized” by the ideology of groups like Islamic State.
Robin S. Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, told the board that his mother and her family had been among the Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II.
“The idea of making policy to discriminate against a group because of the nation they came from, because of their ethnicity, because of their religion, is anathema to our Constitution and to all the values of this county,” he said.