COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would require refugees to register with the state and hold their sponsors liable if they commit an act of terror or violent crime.
The bill moves on to the House. If ultimately passed and signed by the governor, it could become the first measure of its kind in the country. The chief supporter of the bill said the goal is to keep South Carolina safe from the kinds of attacks carried out this week in Belgium and recently in California and Paris.
"We can make South Carolina out of the 50 states the most unwelcome state for refugees," said state Sen. Kevin Bryant, a Republican from Anderson.
Opponents of the bill said it didn't fit South Carolina's oft mentioned Christian values, such as loving one's neighbors.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said South Carolina and New York are the only states that have proposed measures to register refugees.
"This may be the first time the Legislature in South Carolina and the Legislature in the state of New York are on the same page," said Bryant, adding New York already has suffered from terrorist attacks.
South Carolina is in the middle of the South's so-called Bible belt, with Republicans controlling both chambers in the Legislature and the governor's office. The state drew international attention last June when nine African-Americans were shot to death at a church in Charleston. Authorities arrested a white man they say was motivated by racial hatred in the killings. He is awaiting trial.
The bill requires refugees resettled by the federal government into South Carolina to register with its Department of Social Services. That agency would share the information with state police, who would be asked under the measure to confirm that the refugees aren't security risks and report back to lawmakers.
The bill passed 39-6. Some Democrats supported the measure after Bryant agreed to remove a requirement that no state money be spent on refugees — including funds to educate their children. Bryant also removed a provision that would make the registry public after many lawmakers worried that would threaten the safety of the refugees.
State Sen. Brad Hutto voted against the bill because he worried it was unconstitutional because it singles out people based on their country of origin.
He said he doubts any court would hold an organization that helps refugees responsible for a criminal act.
"I think there is a higher likelihood of being struck by lightning while drowning," said Hutto, a Democrat from Orangeburg.
Gov. Nikki Haley's office didn't immediately comment on the bill Wednesday. But Haley spoke last year with the FBI about her concerns with resettling Syrian refugees in South Carolina, saying her first and primary duty as governor is to protect the safety of residents.
Nearly 850 refugees from a number of countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East have come to South Carolina since 2010, with 87 arriving since last summer.
Bryant said he was proud most of his fellow senators, adding they decided to protect South Carolina.
"We've got to choose our own citizens over those that are not citizens of this country," Bryant said.