HAMMOND | Gov. Mike Pence's desire to close Hoosier borders to Syrian refugees received some unlikely support Wednesday from a Region Democrat who regularly criticizes the governor's policies.
But Pence and dozens of other governors who made similar declarations this week are ignoring an already extensive federal vetting process for such refugees attempting to enter the United States, two Region immigration advocates said.
While questions remained Wednesday regarding whether Pence even possesses such power, a Merrillville business owner of Syrian descent said Pence's declaration feeds a culture of "fear-mongering" in which people fleeing terrorism are being treated as the terrorists.
It's no surprise Lake County Republican Party Chairman Dan Dernulc, of Highland, came out Wednesday supporting Pence's declaration.
Dernulc, a grandson of Croatian immigrants and great-grandson of Slovenian immigrants, said he understands America has been a historical bastion for refugees.
But he said recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere stress a need to ensure refugees fleeing a Syrian hotbed of ISIS terrorism be thoroughly vetted before entering the United States.
"I think U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said it best when he said we need to take a pause to properly vet this out and make sure we're safe," Dernulc said. "I say that as a descendant of immigrants but also as a father who wants to see his children and his country remain safe."
Perhaps more unlikely, though, was that former Lake County Democratic Party chairman and frequent Pence critic, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., joined Pence's chorus Wednesday.
"I understand where the governor is coming from on this one," McDermott said. "Nobody wants what happened in Paris to happen in America.
"On one hand, you want to be sympathetic to the plight of the refugees. On the other hand, we need to protect America."
From Washington, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, also acknowledged a balance is needed between offering refuge to persecuted people and vetting them for national security.
“As the ranking member on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I am keenly aware of the serious threats facing our nation, and I strongly support efforts to properly vet all refugees admitted to our county for security reasons," Visclosky said in a written statement.
"I also firmly believe that solely basing admission decisions on an individual’s country of origin or their religion is unacceptable and inconsistent with our country’s values."
Merrillville restaurateur Ferass Safadi, a U.S.-born citizen of Syrian heritage, said closing state borders ultimately punishes innocent people already fleeing for their lives.
Safadi noted that most Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland are the victims of terrorists — not the perpetrators who Pence and other governors seek to keep out.
"It's very sad to see what the governor has done here," said Safadi, who supports Syrian refugee relocation efforts and agencies, including Hammond-based Chicagoland Immigrant Welcome Network, that provide support to people seeking safety in the United States.
"The reality is, you're harming the victims here," Safadi said. "These people are getting bombed by (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's) regime from the air, and they're being terrorized by ISIS on the ground.
"The refugees are fleeing both of these things just to survive. These people aren't the terrorists. These are the victims of the terrorists."
Safadi said the actions of Pence and other governors were "very disappointing" and equate to "fear-mongering."
In a guest column submitted to The Times opinion page, Chicagoland Immigrant Welcome Network Executive Director Tony Burrell noted Pence also is ignoring an extensive federal program for vetting all refugees seeking U.S. asylum.
"Each refugee undergoes a thorough vetting and screening process that generally lasts at least 18 months, including checks by the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense as well as the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center," Burrell wrote.
"The U.S. refugee resettlement system has not failed here and continues to be a lifeline to desperate individuals fleeing terrorism."
Burrell's full column will be in Friday's edition of The Times.
The Pence Administration fired back at critics Wednesday, arguing in a public memo that "President Obama's FBI director, James Comey, testified before Congress last month that 'gaps' remain in the United States' process of screening Syrian refugees."
State and national political observers Wednesday questioned whether Pence and other governors have the authority to close state borders to refugees.
Federal law does not allow governors to bar legally admitted refugees from locating in their states. But governors can make the process of finding a new home more difficult, as refugees typically rely on state-supported social service agencies to obtain an initial resettlement placement.
On Monday, after Pence, a Republican, announced he would not permit new Syrian refugees in Indiana, the state's Family and Social Services Administration informed a refugee aid group that a Syrian family set to fly to Indianapolis on Wednesday, after waiting three years in Jordan for placement, would not receive any assistance in Indiana and must go elsewhere.
The family now will live in New Haven, Conn.
The Times reporter Dan Carden contributed to this article.