Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday the federal government has alleviated some of his concerns about people resettling in Massachusetts from war-torn countries, reporting that an "overwhelming" number of refugees already have family in Massachusetts or are women and children.
"The big issue for me was what's the screening process that the federal government uses to make this decision and if it's people who already have family here and women and children, I felt a lot better about it after that," Baker told Boston Herald Radio.
Pittsfield is slated to be a resettlement area for dozens of refugees from the Middle East. New families are expected to start settling in the area by the end of the year. The initiative is being led by Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, working closely with local government officials, the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations (PACC). Representatives of those groups believe Pittsfield is a perfect fit for the resettlement effort.
The groups will host a public forum on Monday to outline how the federally supported refugee relocation works and what impact it would have on Pittsfield and surrounding communities. Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim will facilitate the 6 p.m. meeting at the Berkshire Athenaeum.
The governor's comments came after a weekend of violence in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota.
The Islamic State publicly claimed a man who stabbed and injured 10 people in the Crossroads Center mall in Minnesota was a "soldier" of the group, which is now on the defensive in Iraq and Syria. Both the Minnesota stabber — identified by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as 22-year-old Dahir Adan, who was killed by an off-duty law enforcement officer — and Ahmad Khan Rahami, taken into custody after a shootout in New Jersey on suspicion that he planted bombs in New Jersey and Manhattan, reportedly came to the United States years ago from foreign countries: Kenya and Afghanistan.
The incidents have rekindled a debate central to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign message, sharply limiting entry into the country. Founding his campaign on the idea of a wall along the southern border of the United States, Trump has proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and more recently proposed an ideological test.
Baker, a Republican who is not voting for Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton or anyone else on the ballot, expressed concern about the resettlement of refugees last fall, after reports that a suicide bomber who struck Paris as part of a coordinated attack last November had entered Europe with a Syrian passport as a refugee.
"The state's role in this is as a collaborator, and I have no intention of having Massachusetts walk away from its commitment and its participation in refugee resettlement programs," Baker said last year. "But I am very interested in knowing a lot more about how the feds deal with situations that involve governments in countries that for the past 10 years have basically been broken."
Baker said Tuesday that his questions about refugee screening closely mirror those of Congressman Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat.
Refugees fleeing brutal warfare in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq and elsewhere have strained the resources of Turkey, Jordan, Greece and other countries as they seek new lives, sometimes in more prosperous European countries, such as Germany and England.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that worldwide there are 65.3 million people displaced from their homes, nearly 10 times the population of Massachusetts, and 21.3 million refugees. More than half the world's refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
At a UN Summit on Refugees this week in New York, where world leaders committed to house and educate people fleeing violence, President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced the United States would "welcome and resettle" 110,000 refugees, a nearly 60 percent increase over last year.
"As president, I've increased the number of refugees we are resettling to 85,000 this year, which includes 10,000 Syrian refugees — a goal we've exceeded even as we've upheld our rigorous screening," Obama said, according to a transcript. "And I called for this summit because we all have to do more."
Baker, who has sought to avoid partisanship on the issue, said Tuesday that screening those who seek to enter the United States is one of the most important roles of government.
"They can always do a better job on this stuff especially from countries where there isn't a heck of a lot of data to begin with, and where the government for all intents and purposes is either hostile or broken, and Syria would certainly fall into that category," Baker said. "And I think this is probably one of the most important responsibilities that the federal government has."
Crediting the mantra of "see something; say something" with apprehension of the suspect in the New York bombing, which injured 29, Baker also said profiling people through social media and other avenues can be helpful, but authorities should not become too rigid in what they believe fits a terrorist profile.
"The thing I do worry about on profiling is that somebody decides they know exactly what the right profile is and they miss somebody who doesn't fit into that particular category because they've decided they know what they're looking for," Baker said. "My own view on this is, are there people who are radical extremists who are part of this larger community? The answer to that is yes. But there are also other people who would't fit into anybody's definition of a radical extremist and you've got to make sure that you don't miss them because you are only focused no one possible angle on this. Look, whenever I've talked to anybody in law enforcement what they've always said to me is, 'You go where the information takes you,' and I think that's by far the best policy here."