Can Governors Block Syrian Refugees From Their States?

After the terrorist attacks in Paris, more than half of the nation's governors -- almost all Republicans -- refused to accept Syrian refugees. Whether they have the authority to do so is questionable.
by | November 16, 2015
Refugees waiting to register with the police in the Serbian town of Presevo. (AP/Darko Vojinovic)

In the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed more than 120 people in Paris this weekend, more than half the states announced they will stop welcoming Syrian refugees to their states.

Momentum built quickly among Republican governors Monday to resist accepting Syrian refugees, at the same time migration experts questioned their legal authority to block the moves. All but one of the governors calling for an end to the placements is a Republican. The governors framed the issue as a way to protect their own residents, after reports surfaced that at least one of the terrorists who carried out the Paris attacks came from Syria.

The governors' resistance took many forms. Some defiantly claimed they would block the Syrians from moving to their states. Others called for at least a temporary pause in the resettlements, so that the federal screening process for Syrian immigrants could be reviewed. Still others asked for a nationwide halt.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said Republican governors will discuss the program at a previously scheduled meeting in Las Vegas Tuesday.

The growing list of Republican governors that objected to the federal government placing Syrian refugees in their states includes Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat running for a U.S. Senate seat, called for a nationwide halt to accepting Syrian refugees. Several other Democratic governors, though, said they would welcome the refugees.

Before the attacks, the U.S. State Department announced that the United States would accept 10,000 refugees from Syria, which has been engulfed in civil war for the last five years. Two dozen other countries agreed to take in fleeing Syrians as well.

But in a letter to President Barack Obama, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked the president to stop accepting Syrian refugees nationwide. Obama’s own FBI director acknowledged that the agency had no way of screening the migrants because they have no records of them in their databases, according to Abbott.

“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,” he wrote.

The governor noted that Texas already had several run-ins with ISIS, which claimed credit for the Paris attacks. Earlier this year, ISIS also claimed credit when two gunmen opened fire at an event in a Dallas suburb featuring a contest to draw the Prophet Mohammed. Later, in a separate incident, the FBI arrested a Texas resident for lying about traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS, Abott said.

“Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” Abbott wrote to the president. “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

Aaron C. Rippenkroeger, the president and CEO of not-for-profit Refugee Services of Texas, Inc., condemned Abbot's decision.

“Refugees are the single-most scrutinized and vetted individuals to travel to the United States,” Rippenkroeger said in a statement. “We believe the governor’s directive will serve no useful purpose except to stoke fear and bigotry toward refugees -- prejudice which Americans, who comprise our nation of immigrants, have historically and categorically rejected.”

So far this year, 194 Syrian refugees moved to Texas, according to the State Department. This map shows how many Syrian refugees settled in each state so far this year, according to the State Department:

 

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said decisions about where refugees will settle “are made in close coordination with state and local civil society organizations and government officials.”

But the spokesperson defended the need for the program and the federal government's screening of the refugees.

“Syrian refugees are frequently fleeing the scourge of terrorism. Refugees are also subject to the highest level of security screening of any individuals who enter the United States. The administration committed to accepting additional Syrian r‎efugees this fiscal year with the confidence we will be able to do it safely, said the spokesperson, who declined to be identified by name.

Two Republican governors -- Terry Branstad of Iowa and Rick Scott of Florida -- raised questions of whether state governments had the authority to block refugees, who are resettled through federal programs. Branstad asked for more information from the federal government. Scott called on the Republican-controlled Congress to block future transfers to Florida.

Kathleen Newland, a co-founder of Migration Policy Institute, said states have no formal role in the process, although they are often consulted. Newland said governors rarely object to the placements, and when they do, it is usually because they feel their state cannot handle the influx.

“This is the first time I’m aware that this kind of rejection of refugees has been rationalized on the basis of a security threat,” she said. “There is no evidence to support the idea that refugees are a security threat.”

Approximately 784,000 refugees have settled in the United States, after the federal government updated its security screenings in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Of those, Newland said, only three have been linked to terrorist plots, and all were arrested well before they could carry out those plans.

There is no reason to believe Syrian refugees are any more dangerous than refugees of any other nationality, she said. Because Syria is a police state, residents there are likely to have documents to verify their identity. Even for residents with no documents, the United Nations screens applicants to confirm their background and identity. Then the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. State Department each separately vet refugees before allowing them to settle in the United States.

The U.S. process takes so long that most of the Syrian refugees who would arrive in the United States this year would have fled Syria before ISIS emerged as a major threat, Newland said. The Syrian refugees waiting for admittance to the United States have been living in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

But several governors said they wanted the federal government to review the screening processes. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, who once described himself as “the most pro-immigration governor in the country,” called a halt to relocating dislocated Syrians until the federal Department of Homeland Security reviewed its security procedures. “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” he said. “But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.”

According to State Department data, 195 Syrians moved to Michigan so far this year.

Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana took a similar approach.

“Indiana 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,” he said.

In Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s announcement, he said state law enforcement was increasing security at large events in addition to banning Syrian refugees. So far, he acknowledged, there were no Syrian refugees in the state.

“The acts of terror committed over the weekend are a tragic reminder to the world that evil exists and takes the form of terrorists who seek to destroy the basic freedoms we will always fight to preserve," Bentley said in a statement. "I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people."

Local Jurisdiction Data

This table lists numbers of Syrian refugee arrivals, by placement city, so far this year:

NOTE: Figures do not include Special Immigrant Visa recipients who receive U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Reception and Placement benefits

SOURCE: U.S. Department of State: Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System