By Mary Troyan and Brian Lyman,
November 16, 2015
WASHINGTON — At least eight governors say they will not accept Syrian refugees in their states in response to Friday's attacks in Paris.
The governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas say their top concern must be the safety of state residents, and they say there's a chance the refugees include people with terrorist ties.
"I just signed an Executive Order instructing state agencies to take all available steps to stop the relocation of Syrian refugees to LA.," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal tweeted on Monday.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statement saying the plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States is "is not the right strategy."
And Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters at a State House event Monday, “No, I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria,” according to the Boston Globe.
“My view on this is the safety and security of the people of the Commonwealth of Mass. is my highest priority,” he added. “So I would set the bar very high on this.”
Despite such reactions, President Obama is continuing with plans to accept refugees from Syria. Responding to calls to admit Christians but not Muslims into the country, he said, "That’s shameful. That’s not American, it’s not who we are."
"We don’t have religious tests to our compassion," he said, speaking from the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey.
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.
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.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley 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."
“Please continue to join me in praying for those who have suffered loss and those who will never allow freedom to fade at the hands of the terrorists,” Bentley said.
Also Sunday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's office released a statement saying the state would not be accepting any Syrian refugees until the Homeland Security Department fully reviews its procedures.
"Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration," Snyder said in the statement. "But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents."
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 vast majority of the refugees have gone to Europe or neighboring countries. The United States accepted 1,854 Syrian refugees 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.
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.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder participates in a panel at the Commonwealth Club on Oct. 1, 2015, in San Francisco.
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Snyder announced Michigan won't accept Syrian refugees. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
Snyder's announcement Sunday is a step backward from recent efforts and comments from his administration offering to aid refugees. In September, Snyder said he was working with the federal government to determine the process for accepting refugees from the ongoing crisis in Syria and the Middle East.
His reversal drew immediate and divisive reactions across the nation on Sunday, but especially in metro Detroit, home to one of the largest Middle Eastern populations in the nation.
Detroit-area Arab-American leaders and refugee advocates said Sunday they understand the governor's concern about security, but 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."
Sean de Four, vice president of child and family services with Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, said the U.S. has a moral obligation to help.
The agency has helped resettle about 1,800 to 2,000 refugees in Michigan over the last year; about 200 of them are from Syria and many others are from Iraq, another war-torn country.
"I certainly understand and appreciate Gov. Snyder's desire to be cautious and put the safety of Michiganders first," said de Four. But "the State Department already uses an overabundance of caution in its screening of refugees before they gained entry into the United States. In fact, refugees spend an average of five to seven years in refugee camps being screened and background checks before access to any country."
More Syrian refugees were expected in Michigan in coming months, but Snyder's decision could bring an end to that.
According to the U.S. Census, 3.5% of Alabama’s population in 2014 was born in a foreign country. The national average was 12.9%.
Bentley in 2011 signed a sweeping bill that attempted to criminalize undocumented immigrants living in the state. Most elements of the law have been struck down by the federal courts.
Bentley's statement said neighboring states had accepted Syrian refugees; Louisiana has accepted 14; Syrian refugees also have settled in Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville.
Snyder has been known for his pro-immigrant views, in contrast to strong anti-immigrant sentiment heard on the national level in the Republican Party during the presidential race.
Two weeks ago, Snyder visited Hamtramck, which has the highest percentage of immigrants among all cities in the state, telling a crowd of Bangladeshi Americans: "I believe I'm the most pro-immigration governor in the country."
The Office of Refugee Settlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said 107 refugees were settled in Alabama in fiscal year 2014. Thirty-six came from Iraq; 22 came from Somalia. In all, 381 refugees were settled in Alabama between 2011 and 2014. One Syrian refugee was settled in Alabama in fiscal year 2012. The state's total population is 4.8 million.
Bentley's statement said the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency "is working diligently with the FBI, DHS and federal intelligence partners to monitor any possible threats."
Contributing: Paul Egan and Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press;Kim Hjelmgaard and Jane Onyanga-Omara, USA TODAY