Syrian refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos last month. (Photo: Santi Palacios/AP)
More than half the nation’s governors — all but one of them Republican — say they will refuse to accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of last week’s deadly terror attacks in Paris. But at least 15 — nearly all Democrats — are refusing to join them.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says his state will welcome refugees from the war-torn region and cautioned his fellow governors not to give in to “fear,” “hate” and “divisiveness.”
“I think our nation is tested from time to time, and I think this is one of those times,” Inslee, a Democrat, told NPR. “The country has always been a place of refuge for those who are persecuted.”
Inslee was among the governors who took part in a conference call with White House officials seeking to assure them that President Obama’s previously announced plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, which includes a 12- to 18-month security screening process for refugees, is rigorous.
“I think the screening process we have now [for refugees] is much more robust than the screening process we have for people coming here on tourist visas,” Inslee said. “You know, some of these terrorists were from Belgium. And they could get on a plane on a tourist visa and come to New York or Seattle, for that matter, with much less screening than someone who sought refugee status.”
Inslee dismissed the security risk cited by governors, like Alabama’s Robert Bentley, who oppose Syrian resettlements in their states.
“There’s risk getting out of bed in the morning,” Inslee said. “We are a nation that has always taken the path of enforcing our freedom — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our humanity, our relationship with the rest of the world. And we’ve hewed to those values even in troubled times. And when we haven’t we’ve regretted it.”
Earlier this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, said his state would accept Syrian refugees, promising they would be “fully vetted.“
“I intend to work closely with the president so that he can both uphold America’s traditional role as a place of asylum, but also ensure that anyone seeking refuge in America is fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way,” Brown told the Desert Sun newspaper. “You can be sure that we will do everything in our power to protect the people of our state.”
Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said the state has ”an obligation to do our part as Americans.“
And Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, declared his state would do its part too.
"Utahns are well known for our compassion for those who are fleeing the violence in their homeland,” Herbert said in a statement. “And we will work to do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety.”
The 10,000 Syrians the administration has pledged to accept represent less than 1 percent of the more than 4 million people who have fled the country — and most are women and children.
Police respond to the attack at the Bataclan concert hall. (Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
But the revelation that one of the suspected terrorists behind Friday’s attacks in Paris may have entered Europe as part of a wave of migrants from Syria triggered fear among many Republican governors.
Bentley was among the first to say his state would not comply.
“I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Bentley announced on Sunday night.
By Tuesday, governors of at least 31 states — all but one of them Republican — said they will refuse to accept any refugees from Syria.
“Governors don’t have the right to restrict people from coming into their state,“ Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who supports Obama’s refugee plan, said Tuesday. "They just can’t. I’m not a lawyer but everyone I know tells me that’s against the law.”
Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigration, told the Associated Press that under the Refugee Act of 1980, governors cannot legally block refugees from settling in their communities.
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, the lone Democratic governor opposed to accepting Syrian refugees, called for the federal government to “halt acceptance of refugees from Syria until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees, including those from Syria, is as strong as possible.”
State-by-state governors on accepting Syrian refugees
Speaking on Capitol Hill Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a “pause” to the administration’s refugee plan.
“Our nation has always been welcoming,” he said. “But we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion. This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
Several GOP presidential candidates have also been leading the chorus.
On Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced plans to introduce legislation banning Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the United States.
“What Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are proposing is that we bring to this country tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees,” Cruz told CNN. “I have to say particularly in light of what happened in Paris, that’s nothing short of lunacy.”
Speaking at the G-20 summit in Turkey on Monday, Obama slammed the idea of a religious test.
“When I hear folks say that maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful,” Obama said. “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
Speaking Tuesday in the Philippines, Obama’s tone was even sharper.
“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate,” he said. “ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West, and when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land that feeds the ISIL narrative, it’s counterproductive. And it needs to stop.”
The president also took a swipe at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said the United States should not admit any refugees from the Syrian civil war — not even “orphans under age 5.”
“When candidates say we should not admit 3-year-old orphans, that’s political posturing,” Obama said. “First they were worried the press was too tough on them in the debates; now they’re worried about 3-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”