NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers said Wednesday that they continue to get calls from constituents expressing concern about the vetting process for allowing Syrian refugees into the state and sought assurance from security officials that the program is safe.
The joint legislative committee heard testimony from security officials, the state attorney general's office and a state refugee coordinator before a packed hearing room of refugees and their advocates.
A highlight of the testimony came from David Shedd, former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who acknowledged there are some weaknesses in the federal vetting process.
"The concern I have as it applies to the Syrian refugee flow is ... to get to that first step of verifying the biographic information. ... The challenge is made far more difficult by having no presence in Syria," Shedd said. "In other words, there is no 911 to call in Damascus" to confirm a person's identity and background.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called on the federal government to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee unless state agencies can become involved in the vetting process.
State Attorney General Herbert Slatery later said in a legal opinion that federal law prevents Tennessee from refusing entry of Syrian refugees.
Associate Chief Deputy Bill Young and Safety Department Commissioner Bill Gibbons told lawmakers Wednesday that the governor as recently as last week sought additional information about refugee placement.
"Our governor's office is continuing to talk to federal officials about this matter," Young said. "It continues to develop even as we speak."
Meanwhile, lawmakers say they're still getting calls from concerned constituents, and don't know what to tell them.
"People are calling our office and asking us, 'Can you give us assurance that this program is operating the way it's supposed to so that we are safe?'" Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, said during Shedd's testimony. "My question to you is ... can we look our constituents in the eye and say, 'You are safe. ... This program is operating the way it's supposed to?'"
Shedd responded: "That's a very, very difficult question to answer for your constituent. I don't think that you can ever get risk to zero."
Holly Johnson, state coordinator for the Tennessee Office for Refugees, said she welcomes modifications to the vetting process, but is against refugees being turned away.
"I would never advocate for less security," Johnson said. "That's why the program works, because bad guys don't get in through the refugee program. I think the program is incredibly successful."
Begard Hawez, a Kurdish refugee who came to Nashville about 20 years ago, spoke to reporters before the hearing. She too said she supports changes to the process to make it more secure, but believes refugees should still get the help they need.
"What these refugees are looking for is a second chance," Hawez said. "Please give them the second chance."
Committee chairman Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said he expects legislation to be filed on the issue when lawmakers convene next month, even though he didn't give specifics. However, he did say he thought the hearing was productive.
"We got a lot of information that we could look at and digest," he said.