Nearly half of the 50 U.S. states moved Monday to shut the door on Syrian refugees as Republican lawmakers urged a halt to the resettlement program, citing security fears following the Paris attacks.
President Barack Obama pushed back, criticizing “shameful” calls to screen the refugees fleeing the war-torn country based on their religion. But Obama faced a barrage of pressure from at least 22 Republican-led states, GOP presidential candidates, key members of Congress, and in one case a Democratic governor to suspend a program to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees on U.S. soil in 2016.
The discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one Paris assailant has revived Europe’s debate on how hard a line to take on the record migrant influx. In the United States, several Republican presidential hopefuls including Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio said outright that America must not take in Syrian refugees because they might include Islamic State militants.
And Republican state governors lined up to demand the suspension of plans to resettle Syrians.
“Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees—any one of whom could be connected to terrorism—being resettled in Texas,” Governor Greg Abbott of the large southern state wrote Monday in a letter to Obama. “I will do everything humanly possible to stop any plans from the Obama administration to put Syrian refugees in Mississippi,” added that state’s governor, Phil Bryant. Obama’s policy of welcoming such individuals “is not only misguided, it is extremely dangerous,” he said.
Alabama and Michigan announced their opposition Sunday. They have been joined by Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan—a Democrat—has backed them. Her spokesman said Hassan believes the Obama administration should “halt acceptance of refugees from Syria” until it can assure the vetting process is as strong as possible.
Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, home to one of America’s largest concentrations of Middle East immigrants, said he decided to suspend arrivals of Syrian refugees until the Department of Homeland Security completes a “full review” of security clearances and procedures.
Michigan’s leading newspaper, Detroit Free Press, reported that between 1,800 and 2,000 refugees have been resettled in the state over the past year, about 200 of whom were from Syria.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is running for president, signed an executive order Monday instructing state agencies to “take all available steps to stop the relocation of Syrian refugees to Louisiana.” He also wrote to Obama Saturday urging him to “pause the process,” and complained that he was kept in the dark about Syrian refugees as they began arriving in New Orleans earlier this month.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations decried the governors’ “un-American” reactions. “Governors who reject those fleeing war and persecution abandon our ideals and instead project our fears to the world,” CAIR said.
Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, director of the Syrian Community Network, which helps refugees adjust to American life, warned of growing “Islamophobia” in the country. “What happened to us that we are now closing our doors to people who are escaping terrorism, trauma and death?” she told AFP.
At least six states have stated they remain open to Syrian refugees. One is Washington, whose governor, Jay Inslee, issued a statement saying: “We have been and will continue to be a state that embraces compassion and eschews fear mongering.”
Claimed by the Islamic State group, Friday’s coordinated attacks targeting revelers at a Paris concert, restaurants and the national stadium left at least 129 dead and raised fears of a similar assault by jihadists on U.S. soil.
Obama, speaking Monday at a Turkey summit of the world’s top economies, said it is “very important… that we do not close our hearts to these victims” of violence in the Middle East.
In September, the U.S. leader announced plans to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 2016. The White House stressed the plan carries little risk because there is a “robust” vetting process in place. The State Department said it was taking the governors’ concerns seriously, and that it was looking into “whether they can legally” block federal resettlement efforts in their states.
Congress faces a Dec. 11 deadline for finalizing 2016 spending, and some Republicans want to insert language that blocks federal funding for refugee plans. House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose chamber observed a moment of silence Monday evening for the victims of the Paris attacks, said he was looking at all options.