By Todd Spangler, Paul Egan and Niraj Warikoo
Gov. Rick Snyder's announcement Sunday that he would back off -- at least temporarily -- from an effort to relocate Syrian refugees in Michigan set off a wave of even stronger opposition by governors across the U.S. on Monday, with several saying they would reject outright any attempts to resettle Syrians in their states.
By Monday evening, at least 23 governors -- including those from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin -- had issued statements opposing the federal government resettling Syrian refugees in their states, at least for the time being. The opposition comes after the Paris attacks last Friday that killed 132 people and wounded more than a hundred more. The Islamic State, which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Some state officials fear terrorists could pose as refugees.
But even as governors issued statements and took other actions -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an order instructing state agencies to take "all available steps" to stop Syrian resettlements -- it was unclear whether they had any role in a process largely left to the federal government and nonprofit organizations.
It can take years of vetting to gain entry into the country.
"What are we talking about? The National Guard meeting families at the airport and turning them back? I would hope none of us are talking about a response like that," said Stacie Blake, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Committee for Refugee and Immigrants outside Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama reiterated at a news conference in Turkey on Monday that his administration would continue its efforts to resettle about 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next 11 months, saying that, "slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values."
But Snyder's statement Sunday -- coming from a governor who actively sought Syrian refugees for Michigan -- seemed to set off a round of bellicose refusals from other state executives to accept new refugees.
Many, if not all, went further than Snyder did, however. Saying again via Facebook that he was telling his administration "to put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees," Snyder said Monday that he was not asking that some 20 Syrian refugees who have either recently arrived in Michigan or are expected soon be stopped or vetted again.
"That would be a decision that would be up to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security," which has already put those refugees through a vetting process that lasted more than one year, Snyder told reporters after a Monday speech in East Lansing.
"Again, they're the ones making the review. They're the ones who have reviewed the files and records and made the decision that these individuals were safe to come to our country."
Snyder's office also said Monday that it was not making any blanket statement opposing resettlement of new Syrian refugees in Michigan, only that his own efforts encouraging it would be suspended until Homeland Security finished a thorough review of its vetting processes to better make sure terrorists did not reach the U.S.
Many elected officials have expressed worries that terrorists could pose as refugees to move between countries following reports that one of the attackers in Paris had a Syrian passport, and that the Paris prosecutors' office said fingerprints from that attacker match those of someone who passed through Greece last month.
The "reality is, there is no database on Syria making it impossible to adequately screen these refugees," U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican from Harrison Township, said Monday. "The United States has a long history of helping refugees from across the globe -- one we should be proud of -- and we will continue to help.
"However, in doing so, we must make certain we are not jeopardizing the safety of our homeland and this nation's citizens."
Governors from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin issued statements saying they oppose, to varying degrees, Syrian refugee resettlements in their states. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan was the only Democrat While some said they would oppose any attempt to relocate refugees in their states, others urged the federal government not to send any refugees to them.
At Monday's U.S. Department of State briefing, spokesman Mark Toner said the governors' concerns were being taken seriously, but argued that refugees go through a rigorous review process before entering the U.S. He downplayed any threat posed by refugees and said the department would "try to address" concerns governors raised.
But in response to one questioner who asked about a Syrian refugee who wants to be relocated near relatives in Dearborn, Toner said the federal government does not dictate where resettled refugees go to live in the U.S.
"We don't force resettled people into certain regions," he said. Snyder announced in September that he was working with the federal government to determine the process for accepting additional refugees from the ongoing crises in Syria, which is in the midst of civil war, and other parts of the Middle East. He hadn't set a target number for how many he thought Michigan should accept but said he was also working with groups in Michigan that help locate and resettle refugees. Then, on Sunday, citing the attacks in Paris, Snyder said he was suspending those efforts pending a review of Department of Homeland Security procedures.
Reaction was sharply divided between Michiganders who hail the move as prudent and those who say Snyder is painting refugees with too broad a brush and pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment.
At the U.S. Committee for Refugee and Immigrants, Blake said people in the resettlement community were "shocked at the governor's position on this," adding that "refugees are the most highly vetted individuals to enter the United States" now. She called the decision to suspend work on resettling Syrian refugees "discrimination."
But Richard McLellan, a Lansing lawyer who, like Snyder, had encouraged Syrian immigration to Michigan, said the governor was right to call for a suspension of those efforts.
"I'm not saying stop it," McLellan said, referring to resettlement. "I'm saying we slow down and think about it. Let's think, 'Are we sorting them sufficiently?' "
Steve Mitchell, CEO of the East Lansing consulting firm Mitchell Research & Communications said Snyder took the action he did "because he's greatly concerned that some of these Syrian refugees could well be terrorists," and that it's his responsibility to act to protect the Michigan public.
Others, including Ed Sarpolus, founder and executive director of the polling and consulting firm Target-Insyght in Lansing, said Snyder was "showing smart politics," faced with a Legislature more conservative on immigration issues than he is.
But Snyder may also be walking a political tightrope, considering Michigan's large Arab-American and Middle Eastern population in the Detroit metropolitan area, said David Laitin, a political science professor at Stanford University who in May co-authored a piece called "Let Syrians Settle Detroit" for the New York Times.
"Gov. Snyder has a responsibility for the safety of his constituents; prudence on issues of refugee resettlement is therefore understandable," Laitin told the Free Press. "But the governor will quickly learn that" the Department of Homeland Security's "security procedures are, if anything, overly cautious. The real challenge is to retain the trust among the large and loyal Arab-American community in the Detroit metropolitan area that can be called upon through community policing to forewarn authorities of all suspicious activities.
"The governor ought not lose that trust by acting in ways that equate Arab refugees with terror. Maintaining Michigan's cautious welcoming of innocent and devastated refugees is a way to sustain that trust," he added.
The Michigan Catholic Conference, which also works to resettle refugee families, said Monday it understood and appreciated Snyder's move.
"Once the governor receives the safety reassurances from Homeland Security he feels are necessary, we expect that Michigan will continue to be a welcoming place," said Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO Paul Long.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, said he supported strengthening the screening process but rejected the idea that "the United States or the international community should close its doors to refugees fleeing war-torn countries." U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Lansing, said that while making sure the vetting process is thorough, "Michigan should continue to be a place where we can reunite families while ensuring the safety and security of our homeland."
According to the State Department and other officials, however, the vetting process for refugees resettled in the U.S. is already thorough and can often take as long as two years to complete.
Resettlement involves interviews and vetting by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, in the U.S., the State Department and Homeland Security. Non-governmental agencies then work to resettle refugees in specific places by coordinating with local employers, charities and others, including local governments -- a process Snyder acknowledged in not standing in the way of the 20 refugees already headed to Michigan.
"The statement actually said we were going to suspend things until we had a chance to talk to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security," Snyder told reporters Monday at the University Club at MSU. "We just want to verify that they're comfortable with the procedures and doing all the best work possible from their perspective."
Snyder couldn't say how long the review might take or how long his administration's efforts might be suspended. Homeland Security did not immediately respond to questions on whether such a review would be made or how long it would take.
"We're going to have a dialogue with them," Snyder said. "This just recently happened."
On Monday, Snyder cited not just Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, but bombings in Beirut on Thursday that killed close to 50 people.
"Most people are not terrorists, and we need to be thoughtful about helping people around the world," Snyder said. "This is just to be prudent to make sure that some terrorist element is not entering our country."
Sean de Four, vice president of child and family services with Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, said Sunday that 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 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," 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-checked before access to any country." Marge Dunithan, a retired bus driver in the Calhoun County town of Burlington, applauded Snyder's action.
"Why would we want them to come here right now, with everything going on?" she asked.
But Arab Americans were concerned about Snyder's decision, especially as other states followed with similar moves late Sunday and Monday. Some were surprised because they had seen Snyder as being pro-immigration.
"It's sad to see our politicians give in to xenophobia, given the large Muslim and Syrian population in metro Detroit that has been supportive of Snyder, civically engaged in their communities, and (is) an integral thread of the American fabric," said Suehaila Amen of Dearborn Heights, an Arab-American leader. "I think our nation forgets how their ancestors fled the tyranny and instability of their home countries to come to the U.S. to find freedom and opportunity.
"Who are we to now pick and choose what human being is allowed the opportunities others were once given, especially when our country plays a large role in their need to flee?"
Amen said that "unfortunately, people's ignorance is becoming more and more evident during this time, as we see threats made towards communities, hate crimes being committed and the continuous spewing of anti-Muslim rhetoric by politicians."
USA TODAY writer Deborah Berry contributed to this report.
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