Protesters against Syrian refugees coming to Washington gathered Friday outside the state Capitol, where they encountered a crowd of pro-refugee demonstrators.
OLYMPIA — Demonstrators opposing refugees outside the Capitol encountered nearly an equal number of counter-demonstrators Friday in a situation that led, at times, to shouting and pushing.
About 250 people showed up on the steps of the Capitol to call for a halt to resettling refugees in the state, according to a crowd estimate by the Washington State Patrol. About 200 counter-demonstrators appeared in support of refugees.
Speakers for the rally, organized by a local chapter of the organization ACT for America, criticized Gov. Jay Inslee’s remarks this week in which he said the state should welcome refugees, including Syrians.
One speaker was state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, who urged lawmakers to impeach Inslee if the governor did not change his position.
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Governors don’t appear to have authority to block refugees. Still, about half the nation’s governors have called for a halt to accepting Syrian refugees. Authorities say at least one of the attackers in the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist strike may have crossed into Europe with refugees from Syria.
In Congress, the House on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to halt the acceptance of Syrian refugees.
Counter-demonstrators in Olympia on Friday chanted phrases such as “Jesus was a refugee,” and “Refugees are welcome, racists go home.”
Men with the refugee protesters, bearing side arms and walkie-talkies, formed a line to keep counter-demonstrators from getting too close to the refugee rally, which was permitted by the state.
Between October 2014 and this past September, 25 refugees from Syria — which has been mired in a civil war — have resettled in Washington state. The Obama administration has announced it will allow 10,000 Syrians to resettle in the U.S. over the next year.
Also on Friday, Inslee sent a letter to GOP state senators who had called on him to pause refugee settlements until the vetting process could be assured.
Inslee reiterated the vetting steps, which involve the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of State and include interviews and multiple checks. That vetting, on average, takes 18 to 24 months, according to the letter.
Inslee wrote, “I do not agree with the premise, unfortunately espoused by you and too many elected officials from other states, that our nation and our state should cease to welcome refugees fleeing oppression and conflict in other nations.”
Fewer than 2,000 of the 4 million refugees from Syria have settled in the United States since 2012, according to a report by The New York Times, including small numbers in Seattle, Spokane and Richland.
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said her group has been tracking ACT for America’s national organization.
“We’re very concerned about their anti-Muslim rhetoric,” said Beirich, director of the law center’s Intelligence Project. “And we plan to add that organization, at least its headquarters, to our hate list for 2015.”