Saturday, April 05, 2008

Rep. King gets in war of words over Muslims. He is fostering stereotypes.

WASHINGTON – Rep. Steve King said he's just watching out for national security interests.

The first Muslim elected to Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, said the Iowa Republican is fostering stereotypes

At issue is a special immigration visa that is used by religious organizations to bring religious workers into the country.

In August 2005, the government reviewed 220 pending and completed petitions applying for religious work visas. It found that one-third involved fraud, such as phony churches or nonexistent U.S. jobs.

The public report on that review did not break down which religious groups were linked to the incidents of fraud.

But King said people who helped prepare the report told him that 80 percent of those cases were coming from what he called "the mosques." King declined to name his sources.

King is calling for congressional hearings to investigate which religious groups were involved in the fraudulent petitions.

If his information is accurate and one group is responsible for most of the fraud, King said, people from that group should be excluded from the visa program "until they clean up their act."

Ellison said King's comments were irresponsible and could lead to religious stereotyping.

"Saying that some groups are more responsible for fraud than others . . . that's a slur on somebody," Ellison said. "If he's going to make an inflammatory comment like that, he should be prepared to back it up — and he obviously wasn't."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told her that the government review "doesn't reveal any indications that any one denomination over any other has any particular problem."

King said that he could not believe that.

"That's nuts," he said. "It violates my sense of credulity, because anybody knows that when you have human beings involved, you're not going to have an equal distribution across a spectrum."

Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for the immigration agency, declined to comment on King's assertion.

King said he's not stereotyping anyone.

He and Ellison had a testy exchange at a hearing of a House immigration subcommittee on which they both serve.

King said he was trying to be sensitive about the matter and at first spoke only in generalities about one religious group being responsible for more fraud than others. He said he singled out Muslims only after Ellison asked him repeatedly to specify which group he was talking about.

"If you ask three times and you get the answer, you can't blame the guy that gave you the answer," King said of his pointing to Muslims.

King said that the United States must be vigilant about who is allowed to enter the country, given the threat of terrorism.

If 80 percent of the fraud in religious visas is occurring within one group, then excluding that group from the program would greatly reduce the fraud, he said.

King said the nations of origin of those who committed the fraud concerned him more than did any particular religion. "I've got to get more documentation before I say more," he added.

Ellison said the United States is supposed to be a nation where people are not harassed because of their religion or country of origin.

The Special Immigrant Non-minister Religious Worker visa program was established in 1990 to allow churches, synagogues and mosques to hire qualified foreigners. It's being debated in Congress because the program is set to expire.

The House Judiciary Committee last week approved a bill to reauthorize the program for seven more years.

King pushed unsuccessfully to reauthorize the program for only five years, to put more pressure on immigration officials to fight fraud.

One portion of the bill — which could go to the House floor in the coming weeks — would require federal immigration officials to finalize new rules aimed at addressing the fraud problems.

Those proposed rules include an inspection of sponsoring religious organizations and requiring proof that applicants are qualified for the work they are supposed to be doing.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said Friday that his group would look into King's statements.

"If he's making claims, then the burden is on him to come forward and establish" those claims, Zogby said.

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