Sam Brownback’s anti-refugee bluster focuses on the wrong crisis

In dire need of a distraction from such nagging matters as a $300 million budget hole and a threatened bond downgrade, Gov. Sam Brownback has announced that Kansas is withdrawing from the federal government’s refugee-relocation program.

Brownback made his decision public in a news release on Tuesday. It and supporting documents reveal that the governor has been very busy over the past few months backing up his foregone conclusion that whatever the federal government does to screen refugees is not enough.

His administration has already denied benefits to two refugee families, the documents show.

“As Governor, my priority has been and will continue to be the safety and security of Kansans,” Brownback said in his release.

Which Kansans is Brownback talking about?

Not the patients and staff at Osawatomie State Hospital, where a staffer was raped and conditions were deemed to be so hazardous that federal officials yanked Medicaid funds from the facility.

And not the people at Larned State Hospital, Kansas’ other facility for people with severe psychiatric illnesses, which is also understaffed and unsafe.

The state’s at-risk children, then? Not really, no: Since 2013, at least two children have died after child-protection authorities were warned that they may be in danger. In several other cases, children have been found with severe injuries after the state failed to act on multiple calls about their well being.

The Department for Children and Families is ripe for an overhaul, but clearly the governor has been too busy protecting Kansans from refugee families to worry about abused kids.

Brownback’s department heads have raised red flags about safety. The Highway Patrol says it doesn’t have enough troopers to properly police the highways. Prison officials are worried about a shortage of corrections officers. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is taking a pass on about one of five felony investigations because it doesn’t have enough people to handle the workload.

If safety and security were really priorities to Brownback, he would appeal to the Legislature to restore at least some of his failed tax cuts so that Kansas would have enough money for basic services. But that would mean admitting that his supply-side experiment has failed spectacularly, and Brownback can’t bring himself to do that. It’s much easier to gin up phantom fears about refugee families from Syria, who so far have not posed a threat to Kansas or any other state.

Brownback didn’t mention a word about the ongoing fiscal crisis in his State of the State address this year. Instead he lambasted President Obama for wanting to increase the number of refugees the U.S. would admit from war-torn Middle East nations. And now, just as the Legislature is returning from a month-long break to confront the latest revenue shortfall, Brownback has issued a dramatic announcement that Kansas will secede from the refugee-relocation program altogether.

There’s just one problem: The federal government can still relocate refugees to Kansas.

Federal law allows states to decline to help resettle refugees through the administration of food stamps and other benefits. But if that happens, federal officials can designate a nonprofit agency to receive the necessary funds and do the work. That’s already happening in at least a dozen states.

In a letter to Brownback dated April 13, Mark H. Greenberg, an acting assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reminded the governor of that inconvenient reality.

“Refugees will continue to arrive in the state,” he wrote.

Cue the outrage over the overbearing federal government trampling on the rights of the states. That ought to keep Brownback busy for a while — on the wrong thing.

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