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Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson: Refugee Ban Wasn't Sufficiently Vetted


The governor of Arkansas has two perspectives on President Trump's executive order on immigration. Asa Hutchinson was once a top homeland security official. He went through efforts to improve U.S. border security. Now he's the governor of a conservative state who has opposed receiving Syrian refugees.

Both of those perspectives inform Asa Hutchinson's opinion of an order that stops travel from seven majority-Muslim nations. For starters, Hutchinson thinks the order could easily have been framed as a simple security measure instead of a dramatic test of who we are as a nation.

ASA HUTCHINSON: President Trump obviously likes the dramatic, and this executive order was designed to be dramatic. It was designed to show a change in direction. That was accomplished, but it was done very quickly and there's consequences to that drama.

INSKEEP: Governor Hutchinson says the order should have been properly vetted by security professionals, but he likes the underlying ideas.

HUTCHINSON: Well, the security benefits are significant. I mean, first of all, I have advocated that Syrian refugees need to be more closely vetted. There needs to be greater coordination with the states. That's specifically addressed in the executive order, and so I applaud that. I think the challenge is that it was not vetted sufficiently. It was clumsily produced and implemented in the early days, we're seeing problems from that.

INSKEEP: What was clumsy about this executive order?

HUTCHINSON: It was within a tight circle at the White House, and it was not looped in to the agencies who're impacted. And so there was not sufficient coordination with those that were already on flights, that already were visa holders here from a legitimate standpoint. If they would have given a little bit more vetting of the executive order, I think those things could have been eliminated.

INSKEEP: Does it make sense to stop immigration or visitation even from seven specific countries in one region and leave many other countries off the list including countries in the very same region?

HUTCHINSON: Well, there has to be a rationale for doing it, first of all. And each of these countries have a history and association with terrorism, and so yes, I think it does make sense. Now, you can argue, well, there are other countries that should be included, and that's the purpose of the 120-day pause in which the secretary of Homeland Security and other agencies are directed to consider exactly what the policy of this administration should be.

INSKEEP: I'm realizing listening to you, Governor, there's a couple of different parts of this order. One is reviewing the vetting processes, and it's hard to argue with that. Why wouldn't you check up on that and make sure everything's working? But the other part is banning people from travel, and I'm realizing that when he was campaigning the president initially talked about banning all Muslims from around the world from coming to the United States. People said that's not going to work, so he narrowed it down ultimately to people from seven countries.

But now they've made exceptions to that and green card holders can come back and forth, and they're making exceptions for interpreters from Iraq. And I'm beginning to wonder if the travel ban part of this makes any sense at all from a security standpoint, or if it's really just a symbolic and arbitrary measure. What do you think?

HUTCHINSON: Well, the exceptions that you just recited should have been included in the original executive order, recognizing that to have a total ban is not workable. It is important to remember that in our country we should never have a religious test, and I read the executive order first in that light. And whenever you look at Egypt, you look at Saudi Arabia, you look at other high percentage Muslim countries, they're not included so I don't see how anybody could construe this as a religious test.

INSKEEP: And let me ask about the vetting also. Refugees are included in this ban, people who according to the government have been extensively vetted, many of them have waited for years. What specifically was wrong with the vetting system that needs to be improved?

HUTCHINSON: From a governor's standpoint, one of the challenges is that there's no information shared with the governors before a refugee is located in the state, and so there's very little information as to the extent of vetting. As to any of the background, I know generally from my history what the vetting process is, and it's all based upon information that you have in your databases or that you can ascertain about the potential refugee.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that as a governor you just did not trust the Obama administration over the years when they said we spent years and vetted these people as well as possible?

HUTCHINSON: I don't trust any administration when information is not shared. Governors have responsibility for security and say give us information on people that - coming into our state that could pose a risk.

INSKEEP: I'd like to know, Governor, is this a basic democratic political problem as much as a security problem? And here's what I mean by that. Statistically speaking, refugees have not been found to be a significant threat. Other kinds of people have committed far worse offenses statistically speaking. But are you in a situation as a governor in which you oversee a state where the public broadly or a lot of the public just is not comfortable and you need to be responsive to that?

HUTCHINSON: That's a part of it. You want to have the people of your state feel comfortable when their children go to school, in terms of security, when - that they go to the mall, that they shop. And there's serious consequences if there's a terrorist attack in your state.

INSKEEP: Is part of the concern here just that we're talking about Muslims, people of a different faith than most Americans and a faith that is not familiar to a lot of Americans?

HUTCHINSON: Well, speaking for myself the answer is absolutely no. I know Muslims, I've represented Muslim, I've defended Muslims, and they are part of the fabric of America.

INSKEEP: But you're trying to be as a governor, a governor for many different kinds of people. Are there some people that you feel you have to be responsive to who do have that concern?

HUTCHINSON: No. It is relevant to be responsive to people on general security concerns, but whenever it goes too far and they say we ought to ban all Muslims, you just say no, that's not what America's about, and I've said that.

INSKEEP: Governor Hutchinson, thanks very much.

HUTCHINSON: Great to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Asa Hutchinson is governor of Arkansas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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