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After Paris Attacks, Michigan Suspends Efforts to Aid Refugees

Gov. Rick Snyder's decision to suspend efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan in light of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday has sparked controversy and launched the state into the national debate of how to protect U.S. citizens while providing a haven for those who desperately need help.

By Paul Egan and Niraj Warikoo

Gov. Rick Snyder's decision to suspend efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan in light of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday has sparked controversy and launched the state into the national debate of how to protect U.S. citizens while providing a haven for those who desperately need help.

Snyder's office released a statement Sunday saying the state would not be accepting any Syrian refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security fully reviewed 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."

More than 120 people were killed in Paris on Friday night, and hundreds more injured, in a series of suicide bombings and attacks that officials say were orchestrated by the Islamic State, a terrorist group with a stronghold in Syria. News agencies have reported that a Syrian passport found at the scene of one of the attacks matches a refugee who traveled through Greece. Now in its fifth year, the war in Syria has devastated the country, sending millions of people abroad in search of a new life.

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.

"Isn't that part of being a good Michigander?" he asked at the time, while stressing that the refugees would have to be carefully screened to assure they were not security threats.

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.

"Good decision," state Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, posted on his Facebook page.

"We expect more from you," and "this sends the wrong message,"  Rashida Tlaib, a former state representative from southwest Detroit, countered on her Twitter account.

Local 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 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."

Basha said he doesn't mind the scrutiny before allowing refugees in but doesn't think their arrival should be prevented.

Maged Moughni, a Dearborn attorney and Arab-American advocate, agreed, saying "it's uncalled for ... I think it's really unfair."

"It's doing what ISIS wants. ... He's just basically buying into what ISIS wants: Muslims against the West ... Gov. Snyder is buying into the rhetoric."

"I can understand being cautious, but to suspend it is wrong," Moughni said.

A spokesman for the Michigan and Ohio branch of the Department of Homeland Security referred questions about Snyder's move to the national office, which did not return an e-mail seeking comment late Sunday.

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 with what he called "a humanitarian crisis the world has not seen since World War II."

The agency has helped resettle about 1,800 to 2,000 refugees in Michigan over the past 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,"  de Four said. 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 coming months, but Snyder's decision could bring an end to that.

"He could make it very difficult, next to impossible for refugees to come here," de Four said, pointing out that  two-thirds of Syrian refugees are women and children. "It's really unfortunate."

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."

Amid criticism from some conservatives over city voters electing a Muslim-majority city council, Snyder praised the city.

Then came Friday's attack, prompting state Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, to issue a statement Saturday night calling on Snyder to "reverse his call to relocate Syrian refugees in the state."

"We should not rush to offer an open door to the high-risk importation of individuals from a known hotbed of Islamic extremism," Glenn said, disputing assertions that the refugees can be safely vetted.

Snyder decided to halt the refugee program on Saturday, after consultation with legislative leaders, prior to Glenn's statement, spokesman Dave Murray said.

It's true that earlier efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Michigan "were contingent on proper security vetting, which is an extensive process that takes up to a year or more," Murray said.

However, "in light of the terrible situation in Paris, Gov. Snyder has asked that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security complete a full review of those security procedures and clearances."

Asked whether Syrian refugees who have been through the current vetting process and want to settle in Michigan should be prevented from doing so, Murray said he's not aware of any refugees who fit those criteria, but would check.

On Sunday, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, issued a statement applauding Snyder:  "I support Governor Snyder's decision to suspend efforts to relocate Syrian refugees to Michigan, and have cautioned against the Administration's decision to increase the number being admitted into the U.S. ...   The fact is, as evidenced by Friday's horrific attack in Paris, terrorist organizations like ISIS are looking for any and every opportunity to exploit a nation's hospitality to carry out their barbaric attacks against the innocent. Anyone who says we can adequately and safely vet these refugees is wrong because there is no database in Syria and no way to identify who's who."

"America has a long, proud history of helping refugees from across the globe, and we will continue to help. However, in doing so, we must make certain that we are not jeopardizing the safety of our citizens."

(c)2015 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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