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After attacks in Paris, governors refuse to accept Syrian refugees

17 Nov

WASHINGTON — At least 24 governors, expressing fears about terrorism, are taking action — through executive order, a request to federal officials or some other means — to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in their states.

Their stand in the name of public safety began Sunday and escalated quickly Monday, igniting a debate over whether states even have the power to refuse people based on their nationality.

The governors — in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — were reacting to Friday’s attacks in Paris and the possibility that refugees seeking resettlement in the USA might include people with terrorist ties.

Twenty-three of the 24 governors are Republican. The lone Democrat is Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

“There may be those who will try to take advantage of the generosity of our country and the ability to move freely within our borders through this federal resettlement program, and we must ensure we are doing all we can to safeguard the security of Americans,” GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said.

In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order instructing state agencies to “take all available steps” to stop the relocation of Syrian refugees in his state.

Incoming Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who is to be inaugurated Dec. 8, said his primary responsibility would be to protect Kentuckians.

Legal scholars say governors probably have little power to stop refugees from entering their states.

“The one thing I feel very comfortable saying is there is absolutely no constitutional power for a state to exclude anyone from its territories,” said Stephen Legomsky, a Washington University of St. Louis law professor and former chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged that only Congress can deny federal funding to help Syrian refugees relocate to the U.S. He urged lawmakers to do that.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont went the opposite direction and said his state will uphold American values by welcoming refugees fleeing terrorism and violence.

At least 132 people were killed and hundreds injured in a series of attacks that took place around Paris on Friday evening. Several of the attackers have been identified as French citizens. According to French prosecutors, a bomber who targeted the national stadium was found with a Syrian passport.

The passport’s discovery raised concerns that Islamic State militants may be crossing into Turkey before moving to Western Europe alongside the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who have entered Europe this year, many of them fleeing the civil war in Syria.

USA TODAY compiled governors’ views on the resettlement question by contacting their offices or tracking their statements and Twitter posts. Twenty-one governors said they plan no action for now to keep Syrian refugees out of their states, and five — in Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and North Dakota — had no response.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did say, however, that he was opposed to Syrian refugees entering the United States but did not join governors who said they were taking action to prevent refugees from settling in their states.

Some governors were measured in their opposition to refugee resettlement.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, for example, suspended a Syrian relocation program already underway but did not issue a blanket statement opposing future resettlement of Syrian refugees. About 20 Syrian refugees already in the pipeline for resettlement recently arrived in Michigan or are expected to arrive soon. Snyder said Monday he is not asking that they be stopped or vetted again.

Detroit-area Arab-American leaders and refugee advocates argued the Department of Homeland Security already does extensive security checks before allowing any refugees into the U.S.

“The United States should be a safe haven,” said Dr. Yahya Basha, a Syrian-American advocate from West Bloomfield, Mich., who has family members who are refugees. He was at the White House recently to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis with U.S. officials: “We should welcome them.”

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama acknowledged Sunday there are no plans to settle refugees in his state, or credible terror threats directed at Alabama. But he issued a statement saying he would “not place Alabamians at even the slightest possible risk of an attack on our people.”

Despite such reactions, President Obama is continuing with plans to accept about 10,000 refugees from Syria. The civil war in Syria, which has raged since 2011, has killed 250,000 people and, according to the United Nations, sent more than 4 million refugees into other countries to flee the violence in what has been called the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism, they are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife,” Obama said from the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. “They are parents, they are children, they are orphans.”

He praised countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Germany that have opened their borders to refugees as “a signal of their belief in a common humanity.”

Obama criticized those who would pick and choose who to accept based on their religion, and he urged American lawmakers “not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us.”

But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a letter to the president that, “Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity. As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

One refugee advocacy organization said the governors are setting themselves up for a discrimination lawsuit.

“You can’t restrict certain nationalities coming to your state,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy with the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Service.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is asking President Obama and the federal government to stop sending his state Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks. USA TODAY

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued a statement saying his state “has a long tradition of opening our arms and homes to refugees from around the world but, as governor, my first responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of all Hoosiers. Unless and until the state of Indiana receives assurances that proper security measures are in place, this policy will remain in full force and effect.”

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam said screening, acceptance and placement of refugees is legally under the authority of the federal government.

“Today I’m asking the federal government to suspend placements in Tennessee until states can become more of a partner in the vetting process,” he said.

The vast majority of the Syrian refugees have gone to Europe or neighboring countries. The United States accepted 1,854 through September, more than 10 times as many have been admitted from Myanmar. The Obama administration has indicated that it plans to increase that number to 100,000 by 2017, which human rights advocates call inadequate to address the depths of the crisis.

The U.S. accepted at least 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees in the months after the fall of Saigon in 1975.