DUNCAN, S.C. >> The worried citizens gathered in the high school cafeteria, about 200 strong. Patriotic songs played on the stereo, a man in a blue blazer from the John Birch Society hovered by a well-stocked literature table, and Lauren L. Martel, a lawyer from Hilton Head, told the crowd that 25 Syrian refugees were already living among them.
"The U.N. calls it ‘refugee resettlement’ — the Muslims call it hijra, migration," said another speaker, Jim McMillan, a local businessman. "They don’t plan to assimilate, they don’t plan to take on our culture. They plan to change the way of American life."
The U.S. government has pledged to increase the number of worldwide refugees allowed in the country each year from 70,000 to 100,000 by the year 2017; this month, the Obama administration said it would take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. But the anger and anxiety here show just how hard this might be in some parts of the country.
None of Syria’s 4 million refugees have been resettled in this part of South Carolina in the past year, according to the State Department. Since May, a Christian nonprofit group, World Relief, has placed 32 refugees in the region, but most of them were Christians fleeing troubled countries like Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even so, in South Carolina’s Upstate region, as its conservative northwest corner is known, the crisis has divided those who want to welcome new waves of huddled masses from those who question the federal government’s ability to weed out Muslim extremists. Some critics, echoing concerns in towns across the country, fear the newcomers will burden local government agencies or alter the character of their communities
The criticism here has encompassed both sober-minded questions about local school funding and warnings about global conspiracies. It began this spring when the Baltimore-based World Relief, one of nine nonprofit agencies that work with the federal government to resettle refugees, prepared to open its new office in Spartanburg, a city of 37,000 close to a major BMW auto plant.
Lynn Isler, a stay-at-home mother, was among those who pushed back. She created a short-lived Facebook page that warned of the "perfect storm that the Syrian refugees will bring." She has also warned that communists had infiltrated some elements of the Christian evangelical movement that supports refugee resettlement.
Elected officials have weighed in as well. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican whose district is part of the Upstate and who leads the House select committee investigating the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, has complained that the federal government did not sufficiently coordinate with local officials before allowing the current crop of refugees to arrive.
State Sen. Lee Bright, who represents Greenville and Spartanburg counties, has called for "open hearings" on the resettlement effort, echoing the concerns of some fellow Republicans who say it is difficult to perform background checks on Syrian refugees, given the chaos that has engulfed their country.
Many critics point to the congressional testimony of Michael Steinbach, assistant director of counterterrorism for the FBI, who told a House committee in February that Syria lacked "systems in places on the ground" that could provide information to be used in the vetting of refugees.
At the meeting in the cafeteria Sunday evening at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, a small city near Spartanburg, state Rep. Mike Burns, R-Greenville County, spoke more broadly of immigration policies that were threatening traditional American culture.
"This immigration fiasco that we’re in the middle of is going to take away the very things that we’re dear about," Burns said.
Evan Mulch, the field coordinator for the John Birch Society, the right-wing group, told the crowd the resettlements were "part of the New World Order game plan." Another speaker worried that the refugees would stress the state’s already stretched Social Services Department.
The United States, Martel said, is "a Judeo-Christian nation. We are not a Muslim nation, and those two things cannot coexist."
During a question-and-answer session, a woman asked if the refugees could be sent home on "troop ships." A man asked if they could be sent on a plane to Saudi Arabia. When he was told that they could not, his frustration mounted.
"Do we shoot them?" he asked, to laughter and applause. "Come on! I mean, this is crazy."
Jason Lee, 41, a Southern Baptist preacher who is the director of World Relief’s Spartanburg office, said he had been surprised by the vehement resistance. In the mid-2000s, when he helped Somali refugees adjust to new lives in Kentucky, there were very few local complaints.
"The fear-mongering seems really different," Lee said.
The situation here has been troubling enough that Anne C. Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, traveled to the Spartanburg area in late August to meet with skeptics and to try to correct what she called "misinformation" about the local program.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Richard said the concern about bringing in "bad actors" from the Middle East had some merit. She alluded to the case of two Iraqi refugees who settled in Bowling Green, Ky., and were charged in 2011 with trying to send weapons and money to an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq.
But she said that screening procedures had improved since then, she also said that the vast majority of the 3 million refugees brought to the United States since 1975 — including 19,000 Iraqis who were resettled in fiscal 2014 — have integrated peacefully. (The United States has taken in about 1,500 refugees from Syria since the start of the conflict there more than four years ago.)
Richard said many Americans had long supported refugee resettlement programs.
"It’s an American tradition, and a lot of Americans get that," she said.
In many parts of the country, including South Carolina, the Syrian crisis has elicited calls for compassion and offers of help: On Sept. 13, hundreds of people gathered in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, to ask the federal government to accept "as many Syrian refugees as possible" in the area, according to the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
This week, the mayors of 18 American cities, including Bill de Blasio of New York and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him "to increase still further the number of Syrian refugees the United States will accept for resettlement." The mayors asserted that the United States had a "robust screening and background check" system in place for refugees, who, they said, "have helped build our economies, enliven our arts and culture, and enrich our neighborhoods."
But even before the Syrian crisis dominated headlines worldwide, resettlement agencies had noted a rise in anti-refugee sentiment in parts of the United States, said Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that works with refugees. In the past two decades, they have increasingly placed people in smaller communities to try to avoid the high cost of living in traditional immigrant magnets like New York and Los Angeles. At the same time, unemployment and tight budgets have prompted some local governments to fight the placement of refugees.
In South Carolina, a number of influential Upstate religious leaders have embraced the refugee program. The Rev. D.J. Horton, senior pastor of Anderson Mill Road Baptist Church, said dozens from his flock of 2,300 had completed refugee support training.
"It’s very hard to read your Bible, especially your New Testament, and refuse refuge to people who are vulnerable," he said.
Lee said World Relief has proposed to the State Department resettling as many as 116 refugees in the Upstate region in the next year. He did not rule out the possibility that Syrians might be resettled in the area in the future. For now, he said, his group had resettled just one Muslim family of four, from Iraq, and a former Iraqi translator for U.S. security companies who has renounced his religion.
The former translator met with a reporter Monday and asked that his name not be used, for fear of attracting attention from anti-refugee activists. He said his reception in the United States had been warm, but he had been careful not to mention he is an Iraqi: Among Americans, he said, "Suicider, killer — this is the stereotype of Iraq."