CHARLESTON – A bill that would ban sanctuary cities in West Virginia and a bill that would let local governments ban refugees in certain cases were up for consideration in the House of Delegates Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Committee meeting Wednesday, but the committee abruptly adjourned before taking action.
House Bill 2664, sponsored by Delegate Jim Butler, R- Mason, would have assigned several duties to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, including meeting quarterly with local governments to plan appropriate placement of refugees, sending notice of refugee resettlement to any person who requests that notice, tracking crimes committed by refugees, estimating their economic impact, and providing refugee resettlement plans to lawmakers and police, among other duties. Reports to lawmakers and police would include refugee zip codes, as well as the "process by which the refugees entering the state were determined to not pose a security risk to the citizens of the state."
The bill would also have allowed local governments to ban refugees for up to one year if they lack "absorptive capacity" and allow the governor to ban refugees if he determined there would be "adverse impact" on state residents. The governor or local governments would determine absorptive capacity through review of the economy, health care services, social services, school districts, law enforcement capacity and whether the area has already been "highly impacted" by refugees.
According to the State Department, two refugees moved to West Virginia between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31, equal to .03 percent of all refugee admissions in the United States during that time.
The Immigration and Nationality Act defines a refugee as any person outside his or her country who has a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Refugee admissions have declined dramatically under the Trump administration, from 84,000 in 2016 to 22,000 in 2018. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, before refugees are admitted to the country, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) "reviews applications from around the world, registers individuals as refugees and selects for resettlement the most vulnerable refugees who will be unable to return home, such as women head of households, and victims of violence and torture."
"Once they are referred by UNHCR, DHS must conduct criminal and medical background checks, all while the refugee is still overseas or out of the country," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. "This process is overseen by USCIS. The screening is conducted by the National Counterterrorism Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and takes an average of 18 months to complete. Refugees are subjected to the highest level of security check of any traveler to the U.S."
House Bill 2067, sponsored by Delegate Ray Hollen, R- Wirt, would forbid cities and counties from becoming sanctuary cities. The bill says no counties or cities "may have in effect any policy, ordinance, or procedure that limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law."
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which provides legal training and advocates for the rights of immigrants, defines sanctuary cities as jurisdictions where police forces don’t comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s direction to detain undocumented immigrants and turn them over to immigration enforcement officials.
The Pew Research Center estimated in 2016 that unauthorized immigrants made up .2 percent of West Virginia's population in 2016, a lower proportion than every state but Vermont, with .1 percent.
During discussion of the sanctuary cities bill, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D- Kanawha, attempted to kill the bill by moving to postponing it indefinitely. That vote failed on a tie, 9-9.
Delegate Jim Butler, R- Mason, moved to table the bills, so they could be taken up later. The vote failed 9-8.
Hollen, the lead sponsor of the sanctuary cities bill, moved to adjourn and that motion was approved on a voice vote.
Delegate Pat McGeehan, R- Hancock and chairman of veterans affairs, and Delegate Tony Paynter, R- Wyoming and vice-chair of homeland security, said more discussion was needed to determine whether the committee would take up the bills again. Paynter didn't respond to further inquiry seeking his opinion on the bills.
This story has been corrected to note that Pushkin moved to postpone indefinitely the sanctuary city bill, not both bills simultaneously. Vote totals have also been corrected.
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