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Snyder among governors not taking Syrian refugees

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Northville Township — After Gov. Rick Snyder suspended the acceptance of Syrian refugees following the Paris killings and bombings in Lebanon last week, the governors of at least 22 other states followed suit as President Barack Obama defended his policy of taking in 10,000 more Syrians next year.

“Given the circumstances of recent events, isn't it important to stop and say: Are there things that could be done to improve the process, to learn from the terrible incidences we've been seeing to make them safer?” Snyder said Monday.

Snyder also said he hoped the suspension is temporary because people in the Middle East are in need, and Michiganders can help.

“We should be proud that we have the largest Middle Eastern community in America right here in Michigan,” Snyder said after an event in Northville.

“Let's make sure refugees coming here want to build a better life. We want to help them build a better life. There are terrorists out there in the world. Let's make sure they aren't apart of that process.”

Obama on Monday stressed that his first priority is the safety of the American people, and “even as we accept more refugees — including Syrians — we do so only after subjecting them to rigorous screening and security checks.

“We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves — that’s what they’re fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said at a news conference from the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey.

The Islamic State terrorist group, which has strongholds in Syria, has claimed responsibility for the attacks Friday on a stadium, a concert hall and cafes in Paris that left 129 people dead and more than 350 wounded, 99 of them seriously.

In addition, three Dearborn residents, including a mother of four who had returned to her native Lebanon in a quest to bring her family to the United States, were among at least 43 slain Thursday in twin terrorist bombings in Lebanon.

Michigan already has accepted about 20 Syrian refugees who started the process of getting admitted to the United States long before the Middle East refugee crisis started, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Monday.

Snyder’s position to suspend the acceptance of Syrian refugees differs from those governors who want to outright them. The governors of Massachusetts and Indiana are also leaving open the possibility of taking them again. Most of the governors are Republican.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas was among those taking a hard line: “Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” Abbott said in a statement, referring to Obama. “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

But policy experts said governors have no legal authority to determine where refugees are resettled within the country.

That power lies largely with the federal government, although federal officials traditionally have worked with state and local communities to determine, for example, the capacity of the resettlement agencies in local communities, said Susan Fratzke, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

As a practical matter, once resettled, refugees are free to move to any state they like, Fratzke noted.

“It’s not possible to say, you won’t accept refugees in your state,” she said.

David Bier, director for immigration policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian policy group, said that, while one of the Paris attackers might have made it to France in a wave of migrants, he should not be referred to as a refugee because no nation granted him refugee status.

“It’s not like there’s a vetting process by which these people come to Europe. They just show up there in boats or on foot. Only after that is their application made to become an asylum seeker,” Bier said.

“Refugees coming to the U.S. have already been vetted by the time they get here – a process that takes years to complete.”

Syrian-Americans told The Detroit News on Sunday they were upset by the Snyder administration’s move. The Dearborn-based American Human Rights Council on Monday urged Snyder to reconsider.

“The Syrian refugees should not be refused safe haven on account of the misdeeds of criminals and terrorists,” said the council’s Executive Director, Imad Hamad.

Obama rejected suggestions from some U.S. politicians that Muslim refugees should be barred from entering the country, but not Christians.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who are pursuing the Republican presidential nomination, have said refugee assistance in the Middle East should be focused on Christians because they pose no security threat.

“When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution — that’s shameful,” Obama said.

“We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

Congressional Republicans and some Democrats have expressed concerns about how well U.S. officials can do background checks on Syrian refugees.

Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, vice chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, raised the issue as early as last winter. The Obama administration responded in February to concerned lawmakers, explaining that the screening process for refugees uses biometric and biographical data.

“However, the reality is, there is no database on Syria, making it impossible to adequately screen these refugees,” Miller said Monday in a statement. “It concerns me that this administration is underestimating the capabilities of ISIS, especially considering the president’s comments just last week that ISIS was ‘contained and under control.’ ”

Rep. Mike Bishop, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, highlighted the response of FBI Director James Comey during a hearing last month when the Rochester Republican asked about the vetting process for refugees. Comey said there is little data on many Syrian refugees, so the vetting process “has gotten a lot better, but I can’t tell you it is risk-free.”

“With so many unknowns, the United States has a duty to pause and develop the necessary protocols before processing Syrian refugees,” Bishop said Monday.

Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, a member of the Senate Homeland Security committee, has urged the Obama administration to boost the number of refugees it plans to accept in coming years, noting that the migration crisis resulted from ISIS extremists driving innocent civilians from their homes.

On Monday, Peters said he doesn’t believe the U.S. or the international community should close its doors to refugees fleeing war-torn nations, but supports “continued strengthening” of the screening process to grant refugee status in the United States.

He said the process is “already one of the most rigorous in the world, involving biographic and biometric information along with security checks from multiple agencies, including the Homeland Security Department, the Defense Department, FBI and National Counterterrorism Center,” Peters said.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, agreed that rigorous screening of applicants for refugee status needs to be strengthened “as necessary.”

“This is deeply personal for so many families in Michigan whose loved ones are fleeing unthinkable persecution and violence, and Michigan should continue to be a place where we can reunite families while ensuring the safety and security of our homeland,” Stabenow said.

Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO Paul Long said he looked forward to Michigan accepting more refugees when security concerns are resolved.

“The Catholic Church in Michigan, through its vast network of human service agencies, stands ready and is eager to assist incoming refugees and the most vulnerable who are in desperate need of assistance,” Long said.

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