White House Pushes Back Against Governors’ Calls to Block Refugees

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

Faced with more than half of the na­tion’s gov­ernors an­noun­cing their op­pos­i­tion to bring­ing in Syr­i­an refugees fol­low­ing the Par­is at­tacks, seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials sought Tues­day to as­suage the coun­try’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­cerns—and re­mind those who want to shut down their states’ bor­ders that the re­set­tle­ment pro­gram is ad­min­istered at the fed­er­al level.

In a back­ground call open to mem­bers of the press, the of­fi­cials said Syr­i­an refugees un­der­go ad­di­tion­al screen­ing in an already-thor­ough vet­ting pro­cess that in­volves in­ter­views and bio­met­ric checks from in­tel­li­gence and law-en­force­ment agen­cies. One of­fi­cial noted that half of those Syr­i­an refugees brought in so far are chil­dren and a quarter are adults over 60, adding that only 2 per­cent of such refugees would be con­sidered single, male, and of com­bat age. The U.S. refugee-re­set­tle­ment pro­cess takes, on av­er­age, 18 to 24 months.

“This is a fed­er­al pro­gram car­ried out un­der the au­thor­ity of fed­er­al law, and refugees ar­riv­ing in the U.S. are pro­tec­ted by the Con­sti­tu­tion,” said one seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. “So while state and loc­al gov­ern­ments have an im­port­ant con­sultat­ive role to play in the re­set­tle­ment of refugees, the re­set­tle­ment pro­gram is, as you’re hear­ing, ad­min­istered by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced in Septem­ber that the U.S. would take in an ad­di­tion­al 10,000 Syr­i­an refugees (and 85,000 total) next year to al­le­vi­ate the hor­ror from a war that has las­ted more than four years. Of the mil­lions of Syr­i­ans dis­placed, the U.S. has taken in only about 2,000 such refugees. It wasn’t un­til the re­cent Par­is ter­ror­ist at­tacks that 27 gov­ernors began their protest, which has spread to the Cap­it­ol, where Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell and House Speak­er Paul Ry­an called Tues­day for a “pause” in the refugee pro­gram. 

At the very least [it] strikes me that we need a pause or a morator­i­um be­cause the Amer­ic­an people are quite con­cerned and up­set about the pos­sib­il­ity of ter­ror­ists com­ing in­to our coun­try through some kind of refugee pro­gram,” said Mc­Con­nell. “I for one don’t feel par­tic­u­larly com­for­ted by the as­ser­tion that our gov­ern­ment can vet these refugees.”

Even Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chuck Schu­mer seemed to agree, say­ing Tues­day that a “pause” might be ne­ces­sary and that he was wait­ing to hear more in­form­a­tion from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The Is­lam­ic State has claimed re­spons­ib­il­ity for the at­tacks that left 129 dead Fri­day, and France has re­tali­ated, bomb­ing tar­gets in Syr­ia. A Syr­i­an pass­port was found near the body of one of the sui­cide bombers, and al­though Ser­bi­an and French of­fi­cials have re­portedly said it is fake, some of the at­tack­ers are be­lieved to have spent time in Syr­ia in the past few years. Re­pub­lic­ans have latched onto those de­tails and pri­or com­ments by FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey ac­know­ledging “gaps” in the screen­ing sys­tem for Syr­i­an refugees.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial Tues­day said the U.S. could ac­tu­ally “be a home for many more refugees” than it is tak­ing in, cit­ing the much big­ger Vi­et­namese re­set­tle­ment in the U.S. dec­ades ago. The of­fi­cial said there were plans to pro­pose an ex­pan­sion be­fore the pres­id­ent’s an­nounce­ment.

But the of­fi­cial also ac­know­ledged the grow­ing con­cerns of mostly Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians, say­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion would hold calls and brief­ings for gov­ernors, may­ors, and Con­gress mem­bers this week. “The thing I most fear about this cur­rent dis­cus­sion go­ing on in the United States is that we will lose bi­par­tis­an sup­port for this pro­gram that it has en­joyed for dec­ades through Demo­crat­ic ad­min­is­tra­tions, through Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions, through dif­fer­ent ma­jor­it­ies in the House and Sen­ate,” said the of­fi­cial. “This is a very pre­cious thing, I think. In the cur­rent day and age it’s been a rare thing. So I hope that that con­tin­ues.”

(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)


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