Government

Branstad joins other governors halting immigration efforts for Syrian refugees

States may not have authority to refuse resettlement under federal program

A Syrian migrant carries a boy as refugees and migrants arrive on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 10, 2015. (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)
A Syrian migrant carries a boy as refugees and migrants arrive on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 10, 2015. (REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Nineteen governors, including Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad, on Monday said they would not allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states, joining Alabama and Michigan and contending it is too dangerous to let in people from that war-torn country following Friday’s deadly Paris attacks.

The Republican governors of Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin — along with New Hampshire’s Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, said their states would no longer help support the Obama administration’s goal of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming years.

“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,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday. “Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity.”

In a late-afternoon statement, Branstad said, “We have welcomed refugees from around the world into Iowa. We must continue to have compassion for others but we must also maintain the safety of Iowans and the security of our state.”

Branstad ordered all state agencies to halt work on Syrian refugee resettlements “immediately.”

“Until a thorough and thoughtful review is conducted by the intelligence community and the safety of Iowans can be assured, the federal government should not resettle any Syrian refugees in Iowa,” he said.

The decision came only a few hours after Branstad’s weekly press conference in which he expressed doubt that governors had the authority to deny federally resettled refugees.

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Experts in immigration law have said the governors likely had no legal standing to block the federal government from settling refugees admitted into the country, but noted that they could obstruct the plans by cutting funding to programs and creating an atmosphere of hostility.

“The federal government has the power over immigration. If they admit Syrian refugees, they’re here,” said Deborah Anker, a professor of law at Harvard Law School who specializes in immigration issues. “People aren’t going to the (state) border. The federal government is going to bring them in.”

‘THEY FLEE TERROR’

The decisions to stop accepting refugees from Syria came three days after gunmen and suicide bombers believed to be part of the Islamic State militant group killed 129 people in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, the worst such event in France since World War II.

A Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers showed that its holder passed through Greece in October, raising concern that the attackers had entered Europe amid the wave of refugees fleeing that country’s four-year civil war.

The United States admitted 1,682 Syrian refugees in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a sharp jump from the 105 admitted a year earlier. Texas, California and Michigan accepted the largest number of people fleeing the war.

Secretary of State John Kerry in September said the United States would increase the number of refugees it takes in from all nations by 15,000 per year over the next two years, bringing the total to 100,000 a year by 2017.

Some of the charitable groups that work to resettle refugees criticized the moves, saying that the governors are wrongly targeting people who are fleeing violence, not trying to spread it.

“For these governors to falsely assert that the U.S. refugee admissions program places their states at risk is utterly preposterous,” the Rev. John McCullough, chief executive of the Church World Service, one of nine charitable groups that works with the U.S.’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, said in a statement.

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Mark Hetfield, chief executive of the Jewish not-for-profit refugee service HIAS questioned the idea that refugees posed a threat.

“As a rule, refugees do not bring terror, they flee terror,” Hetfield said. “Refugees resettled to the United States are already subject to multiple layers of security screenings.”

Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, described his state, which has a large Arab-American population, as “welcoming” but said the risk associated with admitting Syrian refugees was too high.

“Our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents,” Snyder said on Sunday. “Given the terrible situation in Paris, I’ve directed that we put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security clearances and procedures.”

The governors said they were ordering their state departments of health and human services to stop working with Syrian refugees.

Jindal also noted that Louisiana State Police were aware of a Syrian refugee already relocated within the state, and directed law enforcement to monitor for possible threats. Jindal is a Republican candidate for president.

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