INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Mike Pence navigated a political minefield Tuesday – defending his decision to suspend the settlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana for security reasons while denouncing Donald Trump’s proposal to bar all Muslims from the country.
He held a hastily called media availability after news that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis brought a family of Syrian refugees to Indianapolis on Monday evening against Pence’s wishes.
"This is not about this family. My heart goes out to this family," he said.
But the topic was complicated by tweets from the governor saying "the U.S. cannot discriminate on the basis of religion" and "calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional."
State and federal law prohibit discrimination based on religion and national origin.
"I do strongly disagree with the call that would ban Muslims from this country," Pence said. "My concern with the Syrian refugee program has to do with the country of origin. It has to do with the fact that Syria is a war-torn country whose own regime has been exporting terrorism for years.
"For me it’s about identifying a country of origin where we have security concerns. This is about public safety. It’s not about identifying individuals on the basis of nationality."
Pence repeatedly called for the Obama administration to pause and review the gaps in the refugee program that have been identified by top intelligence officials. And he noted that in 2009 the administration paused all Iraqi refugees for six months due to security questions.
Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin posted a statement Tuesday that a family of four – parents and two children – arrived safely in Indianapolis, where they already have relatives.
Pence after the Paris terror attacks suspended the settlement of Syrian refugees through a state and federal program that assists. That decision has spurred a lawsuit alleging he doesn’t have the authority to do so.
But the archdiocese used its own resources to settle the family. When pressed, Pence said he would not block state and federal aid to the family, including Medicaid coverage, welfare and food stamps.
Tobin met with Pence last week, and the governor asked the Catholic Church not to bring Syrian refugees to Indiana.
"I listened to the governor’s concerns regarding security and prayerfully considered his request that we defer from welcoming them until Congress had approved new legislation regarding immigrants and refugees," Tobin said in a statement.
The family fled the violence of terrorism in Syria three years ago and has been extensively vetted via security checks and personal interviews. They have lived in a refugee camps for two years in Jordan.
"For 40 years the Archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services has welcomed people fleeing violence in various regions of the world," Tobin’s statement said. "This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians and we will continue this life-saving tradition."
Pence said he holds the Catholic Charities in high regard but respectfully disagrees with the decision.
He noted that the chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee stated Monday the U.S. government has information to indicate that individuals tied to terrorist groups in Syria have already attempted to gain access to our country through the U.S. refugee program.
"Indiana was right to suspend our participation in the resettlement of Syrian refugees and that will continue to be our policy," Pence said.
He said the state has helped resettle at least 28 refugees from other countries such as Burma and the Congo in the weeks since his executive order. Pence disagreed with the move by Catholic Charities but said he respects its faith and compassion.
"My top priority as governor of the state of Indiana is the safety and security of the people of this state. My faith informs me to keep my oath," he said. "I am deeply compassionate for this family."