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White House reassures governors on refugee resettlement

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The White House is reaching out to Gov. Rick Snyder and other state governors to reassure and educate them about the process of vetting and admitting refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

The Obama administration on Monday wrote to all governors, proposing a new process for the U.S. State Department to accept individualized requests from governors through the National Governors Association for easier access to refugee resettlement information.

A copy of the letter from White House Chief of Staff Denis R. McDonough to Snyder, dated Monday, was obtained by The Detroit News.

“Upon receipt of a Governor’s request, the State Department would compile a tailored report for the individual state submitting the request,” McDonough wrote.

“This proposal responds to Governors’ input, while protecting the privacy of refugee families.”

Snyder was the first governor to suspend the acceptance of Syrian refugees earlier this month, calling for a “pause” in resettlement after Islamic State terrorists carried out attacks in Paris and Beirut and claimed credit for bringing down a plane in Egypt.

A spokesman for Snyder said Monday that the Michigan governor continues to engage in discussions concerning background checks and other procedures for accepting refugees.

“He’s working closely with the departments of State and Homeland Security, and we know leaders there recognize that our priority is to keep Michiganders safe,” spokesman Dave Murray said. “Governor Snyder continues to work to get answers to the questions and concerns expressed by Michigan residents.”

McDonough had held a conference call Nov. 17 with 34 governors, including Snyder, who told administration officials he’d like “more robust data” on the refugee system.

“During that call, governors asked for more information, better information and more timely information about the placement of refugees,” said David Quam, deputy director of the National Governors Association.

The governors also asked the White House to work out the details of that process with the governors association, Quam added.

This letter is “a starting point for a new process moving forward,” Quam said. “As an association, we’re used to working directly with governors and the federal government, so we’re happy to play a role in putting together a process that works.”

The State Department reports would include information on refugees resettled during the prior month and year-to-date, according to McDonough. Officials would provide the details on a monthly, recurring basis via a password-protected website, at a governor’s request. Data would be categorized by nationality, age range and gender.

The White House has stressed that it conducts rigorous, multi-layered security checks with refugee applicants, and enhanced checks on Syrian applicants.

“It is the most robust screening process for any category of individuals seeking admission to the United States,” McDonough wrote. “Additional precautions have been added with regard to Syrian refugees, and we continually evaluate whether more precautions are necessary.”

He noted that the administration has provided the governors with a detailed description of the process for vetting refugees, and that officials with the departments of State and Health and Human Services are available to brief the governors the next time the association convenes in February in Washington.

Also, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is available to work with the governors association to provide further information on the process and “discuss options for enhanced collaboration,” McDonough said.

“The importance of that offer is the opportunity to work with all the departments that handle refugee issues, and having a robust conversation about how we improve communications and provide more reliable and timely information to governors and the states,” Quam said.

Some Republican members of Congress are pushing for the nation’s refugee program to be suspended. The Obama administration plans to boost the flow of refugees from war-torn Syria into the United States next year by 10,000.

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