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Sweeping Reactions From Politicians Over Syrian Refugees In U.S.

Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a campaign stop in Franklin, N.H., on Friday. He has said the focus should remain on helping Christian refugees from Syria.
Jim Cole
Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a campaign stop in Franklin, N.H., on Friday. He has said the focus should remain on helping Christian refugees from Syria.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET

One of the suicide bombers who struck Paris on Friday has been identified as a Syrian who passed through Greece as an asylum-seeker this year and registered with European authorities.

That fact has spurred a strong reaction from many politicians here in the United States over the resettlement of Syrian refugees, with swift opposition from many Republican governors, and one Democrat, to further resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states.

So far, 24 governors have asked the federal government to block Syrian refugees from entering their states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter directly to President Obama on Monday. He said, "I write to inform you that the State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris."

Abbott cited several threats from ISIS he says the state has seen in recent years, including a May shooting in Garland, Texas, at the site of a contest for drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan is the sole Democratic governor to make this call. Hassan's spokesman, William Hinkle, said in a statement, "The Governor believes that the federal government should halt acceptance of refugees from Syria until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees, including those from Syria, is as strong as possible."

Hassan is a candidate for the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire in 2016, challenging incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte. Ayotte made a similar statement regarding refugees on Monday.

So far the U.S. has brought in only about 2,000 Syrian refugees, mainly due to the arduous security procedures. The U.S. has faced pressure to take more refugees as Europe has been flooded by hundreds of thousands from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday, "There's been a lot of misperceptions over the last few days surrounding the issue of refugees."

"We take their concerns seriously," Toner added. "We believe it's incumbent on us to sit with them, consult with them, explain to them the process, the stringent — stringent security review that goes into the — accepting these refugees."

At least two governors said Monday they would continue to accept refugees, Democrats John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania.

Just two months ago, the Obama administration announced a plan to resettle 100,000 refugees from conflict zones around the world, with a plan to bring in 10,000 from Syria in the next year. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed security concerns.

"One of the reasons it's difficult is that post-9/11, we have new laws and new requirements with respect to security background checks and vetting, so it takes longer than one would like," Kerry said. "And we cannot cut corners with respect to those security requirements."

Still, many Republican presidential candidates have raised serious concerns about the security risk of bringing Syrian refugees into the country.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., questioned the ability of the federal government to conduct proper screenings. He told ABC's This Week, "There is no background-check system in the world that allows us to find that out because who do you call in Syria to background-check them?"

In an interview with CNBC on Monday, Donald Trump said of Syrian refugee resettlement, "It would be one of the great Trojan horses."

Democratic candidates were asked about refugees during their debate on CBSN on Saturday night. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said proper screening is the "No. 1 requirement." She added, "I also said that we should increase numbers of refugees." Instead of the 10,000 that the Obama administration has promised to bring in over the next year, Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said the number should be 65,000.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a GOP candidate for president, has also called for blocking refugees from entering his state. "It would be incumbent on people to prove who they are so that we would be certain, because we can't be in a position of inviting the enemy in," Kasich told Fox News on Sunday.

(Last week, NPR reported on a Syrian family that resettled in Toledo, Ohio.)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was quoted as telling talk radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday evening that not even "3-year-old orphans" should be let in among Syrian refugees.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called for a "timeout" on Syrian refugees Monday. He previously spoke of solving the humanitarian crisis in Syria. "The good people are leaving because they're being raped and murdered, and some terrorists are trying to get in their ranks," he told CNN. "The best thing the world could do for Syrian people is to create a safe haven within Syria, a no-fly zone."

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had a similar stance Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "The great majority of refugees need to be safely kept in Syria, which means the safe zones need to be serious. We need to build a coalition that can fight both Assad and ISIS and give people safe haven," he said.

Bush added, "I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore. They're being beheaded, they're being executed by both sides. And I think we have a responsibility to help."

That comment is similar to remarks Sen. Ted Cruz made on the trail in South Carolina on Sunday. "There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror," Cruz asserted.

President Obama rebuked those comments during a news conference in Antalya, Turkey, on Monday.

"When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which 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, apparently referring to the fact that Cruz's father fled Cuba in the 1950s after fighting the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

In 2014, Cruz told Fox News that the U.S. should admit refugees, given the country's history as a nation of immigrants. "We have to continue to be vigilant to make sure those coming are not affiliated with the terrorists, but we can do that," Cruz said at the time.

Dr. Ben Carson said during a news conference on Monday that there should not be a religious test, but an "ideological test."

During an appearance on Fox News Sunday,Carson had said that it's a mistake to let Syrian refugees in "because why wouldn't they infiltrate them with people who are ideologically opposed to us? It would be foolish for them not to do that."

In speaking of how foolish he believes it is to allow Syrian refugees into the U.S., Carson added, "You know, the reason that the human brain has these big frontal lobes as opposed to other animals, because we can engage in rational thought processing. ... Animals, on the other hand, have big brain stems and rudimentary things because they react. We don't have to just react; we can think."

On Monday, Carson sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urging them to end all funding for federal programs to resettle Syrian refugees.

There was more reaction from Congress, as the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, raised security concerns and asked Obama to temporarily suspend admission of Syrian refugees.

Congress is currently in the process of passing appropriations bills to keep the government funded past Dec. 11. They could use those bills to cut funding for resettlement, or pass separate legislation on the matter.

House Speaker Ryan has received requests from various governors and presidential candidates to do what he can to stop refugee resettlement.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.