Politics

Republican Governors Demand President Obama Suspend Syria Refugee Program

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps

On Friday morning, 27 Republican governors wrote to President Obama asking him to “suspend all plans to resettle additional Syrian refugees.”

The governors wrote that while the U.S. “has long served as a welcoming beacon” to refugees fleeing war and persecution, they want to prioritize “ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our citizens.” Though they don’t point to any specific flaws with the current multi-year, exhaustive refugee screening process, they assert that it is inadequate.

Despite the fact that every identified perpetrator of last week’s massacre in Paris were European Union nationals, the governors also float the idea that ISIS members “may have exploited the generosity of the refugee system to carry out Friday’s terrorist attack.”

On Fox News on Friday morning, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) repeated the erroneous claim that a Syrian refugee was involved in the Paris attack. “This is really about recognizing that we have to set the political posturing aside and fix this system in order to protect our nation,” he said. “I just think it’s prudent for us to pause. Then we’ll go forward with the compassionate resettlement program in a way that meets our security needs.”

The French government itself does not agree that Syrian nationals are an inherent threat, and since the attacks has announced it will take even more Syrian refugees — three times as many as the United States.

How faith and human rights groups are responding to the governors

Officials from refugee resettlement groups similarly told reporters on a conference call Friday that politicians who are linking the Paris attacks to fleeing Syrians are incorrect and doing real harm. Calling the governors’ claims “mind-boggling and disturbing,” Melanie Nezer with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society said: “None of the people involved in the Paris attacks were Syrian refugees. They were Belgian and French citizens, as far as we know.” Referencing comments made by Republican candidates for president this week that called for a national registry of all Muslims and compared refugees to “rabid dogs,” Nazer warned, “Who knows where this inflammatory rhetoric can lead.”

Jen Smyers, the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Service, agreed, saying such comments “sends the wrong signal about who we are as a nation” and misrepresent the security of the current refugee vetting system.

“These very vulnerable individuals are already going through the most scrutinized refugee process in the world, including medical screenings, in-person interviews, and biometric screenings,” she said. “Yet the governors would shut down, indefinitely, the settlement not only of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but anyone who has set foot in either of those countries in the last year, including people who served alongside U.S. troops.”

Friday’s letter from more than two dozen governors follows declarations earlier this week from these officials and a handful of others — including the Democrats who govern Massachusetts and New Hampshire — that they will refuse to allow any of the expected 10,000 refugees from Syria to settle in their states, despite the fact that they don’t actually have the power to do so.

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Zane Kuseybi is a first-generation Syrian American who is currently helping Syrian refugees make a new life in North Carolina. On a conference call Friday, he blasted his governor, Pat McCrory, for participating in the letter calling for the program to halt. “The idea that we have to fear Syrian refugees is totally unfounded,” he told reporters. “The hysteria from our public officials is very disheartening. Our governor is really out of touch with reality. These refugees have nothing to do with ISIS. They’re running away from ISIS.”

Speaking of one family with five children who arrived in North Carolina in September of last year with the help of the group Church World Service, he said: “In Syria, their house was destroyed, their life was destroyed. They were left with nothing. Their family was scattered all over the world. After a two-year process of being vetted, they arrived here, where helped the children get enrolled in school. The father got his drivers’ license, and is now working 60-plus hours a week. They are working so hard to make a new life for themselves and we could not ask for kinder, more compassionate people to join our community.”

The refugee crisis gets tied up in the 2016 race

Yet governors across the country, including those running for the White House in 2016, remain unmoved either by data showing the lack of a threat posed by refugees, or by stories such as Kuseybi’s.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), one of the co-signers of the letter to the president, told ThinkProgress that while he admits that refugees have almost never posed a danger in the history of the U.S., he believes this is a “different time” that requires harsher measures.

“I think we need to be careful about who we let in, plain and simple,” he said at a campaign stop in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “Look, I can’t let people into the state when it could jeopardize people’s security. I don’t feel that there’s any conflict at all between having a big heart and a good brain and having to be a leader of a state where I don’t want people to be in danger.”

More than half of the 18,000 refugees already referred to the U.S. by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are children. Yet another co-signer of the letter, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), has said he doesn’t believe they should be admitted either. “The fact is that we need appropriate vetting, and I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States at this point,” he told a conservative talk radio host. “You know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?”