MIDDLETOWN, R.I.—After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, federal officials flew Brian Murph and more than 100 other victims to Rhode Island. They were greeted by the governor and cheered by residents.
Then the handcuffs were placed on Murph.
State police did criminal background checks on every refugee and found that more than half had a criminal arrest records—a third for felonies. Murph was the only one with an outstanding arrest warrant, for larceny and other crimes.
Around the nation, state and local authorities are checking refugees’ pasts as they are welcomed into homes, schools, houses of worship and housing projects. In some states, half the refugees have rap sheets.
Civil libertarians call the checks thinly veiled race and class discrimination against people who have suffered already. The checks are made on those evacuated or forced to seek help from charities or others—in other words, people who are often black and poor.
In South Carolina, state police checked every evacuee flown there by the government. Of 547 people checked, 301 had criminal records, according to Robert Stewart, state Law Enforcement Division Chief.
While most had been law-abiding for years or had committed minor offenses, the group included those convicted of rape or aggravated assault. Two had warrants, but were not held because the states weren’t interested in extraditing them.
“This was all done for everyone’s protection,” Stewart said. “If you’re going to be sheltering people, it would be prudent for people taking them in to know what criminal pasts they might have.”
The state police in West Virginia said roughly half of the nearly 350 Katrina victims evacuated by the government to that state had criminal records, and 22 percent have a history of committing a violent crime.
In Massachusetts, where about 200 evacuees were flown to a military base on Cape Cod, criminal background checks turned up six sex offenders and one man wanted for rape in Louisiana. Two of the sex offenders have since left the state, said Katie Ford, a spokeswoman for the state public safety office. The rape suspect was being held on $250,000 bail.