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Arizona legislator sparks outcry over comments about Afghan refugees

John Kavanagh
Arizona House Republican Caucus
John Kavanagh

State Rep. John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills  is sparking backlash for comments he made about Afghan refugees who are being housed in a hotel in Scottsdale. 

In a  video on Twitter, Kavanagh is standing in front of a hotel where about 300 refugees are staying. He says they are “roaming” the community of Scottsdale and may not have been properly vetted before arriving. 

He echoed the sentiment in an interview.

“There had been no community notification about what was going on and based on other news reports, the school, which is expected to accept these students, only had about a week’s notice,” he said. 

Kavanagh said he questions whether all refugees are able to be properly vetted. He referenced an October article in the Wall Street Journal about a memo from Republican lawmakers questioning how Afghans were vetted in the hasty U.S. withdrawal. In the article, a Biden administration official said the process is done with a plethora of biometric data collected over the last 20 years.  

Afghans have been coming to Arizona for resettlement since late last year, after Gov. Doug Ducey said they’d receive a wholehearted welcome. 

Before arriving, they go through multiple background checks from agencies like the FBI and the State Department. Nejra Sumic with the advocacy group We Are All America says refugees come to Arizona and other states after spending weeks or months undergoing additional screening at U.S. air bases. Many people are coming with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, which are given to people who worked with the U.S. government as translators, interpreters and within other capacities. 

“We have the most rigorous vetting system in the world for refugees, and we no do not hear about cases of people who are not vetted, it just does not happen," she said, 

A DHS report released this month shows some 3,300 Afghans evacuated last year already have SIVs and almost 37,000 more are in the process of applying or about to start. Roughly 36,000 others have family who are U.S. citizens or are extended family of SIV holders, but currently lack a path to permanent residency. Sumic says the focus now should be getting their lives back on track. 

“As a former refugee myself, who came here as a child, it’s so important to get these children into school. I can’t say enough how difficult it is already the journey,” she said.

She said Kavanagh’s comments spread misinformation and fear about that process, and invited him to meet with refugees and groups who help them for a better understanding.

Kristine Harrington, communications director for the Scottsdale Unified School District, said it has been in communication with resettlement agencies and advocacy groups about refugees’ arrival. She said no notice is required for refugees to enroll and that every student is welcome. The district announced their arrival in a newsletter on Jan. 21.

“While we did not anticipate this influx of new students, we are committed to marshalling the resources and supports necessary to ensure that these children are welcomed into our schools as they transition to their new lives in this country,” the newsletter read. “We would also like to thank those parents in our community who have already stepped up to offer help to these families and to our staff who stand at the ready to support our new students.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the number of Afghan refugees who have Special Immigrant Visas.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.