In their announcements that they would not accept Syrian refugees into their states, governors frequently invoked their concern for safety. After all, at least some of the attackers in Paris Friday had ties to Syria, and could have possibly come to Europe as a refugee. And even as they declared they would not admit refugees, many governors invoked the American ideals of community and inclusivity while calling into doubt the motives of Syrian refugees, the United States’ vetting process, or both.
The vetting process, which is extensive and can take over two years for Syrians due to the country’s insecurity, essentially must prove that the people in question are extremely vulnerable in their country and won’t pose a threat to the U.S. CNN reported that Syrian refugees go through an additional layer, referred to as the Syria Enhanced Review process.
But confidence in that vetting process was cast into doubt last month at a hearing when FBI Director James Comey said that there were “gaps” in knowledge that the State Department could obtain from war-torn areas like Syria. Several of the governors, including Republicans Paul LePage of Maine and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, seized on this skepticism – which has been seized and amplified by conservatives – as a reason why the U.S. should not allow Syrian refugees into the country.
Only about 2,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since 2012, a year after war broke out in the region, according to the U.S. government, although Secretary of State John Kerry announced earlier this year that the Obama administration plans to increase that number to 10,000 in this fiscal year. There have been no reports of any of those refugees being arrested or posing a risk.
Despite their individual stances, many governors, including those both from states that have not accepted any Syrian refugees yet, such as Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo (a Democrat) and South Dakota’s Dennis Daugaard (a Republican), and those from states that have, like Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolfe and Washington’s Jay Inslee (Democrats both), have said they would support the federal government. Gov. Inslee specifically mentioned his state’s history of welcoming Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.
While some governors merely stated that they would prefer not to allow refugees into their states, others detailed exactly how they were going to stop them. Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert ordered its “Department of Public Safety to immediately reevaluate the security checks currently used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security as part of Utah’s refugee program,” with Nebraska and Texas governors its respective Departments of Health and Human Services. Republican Gov. Greg Abbot of Texas, which has been specifically targeted by ISIS before, was particularly explicit in his language, calling President Obama’s decision to allow Syrian refugees into this country an “irresponsible” one, which would “expose our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”
It’s this fear – whether justified or not – that politicians are reacting to, although, as Vox‘s Ezra Klein explained: “Fear makes people do stupid things, and it makes countries do stupid things, too. And it is fear that is ISIS’s real weapon here.” Quoting the security expert Bruce Schneier, he explained terrorism real threat is its “capacity to terrorize.”
“The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe and the government can’t protect you — that the existing power structure can’t protect you,” Schneier said.
It’s this fear that politicians can encourage – and exploit – that really makes the situation dangerous. As Kriston Capps wrote in CityLab, “some of their statements could lead residents to think that there are no security precautions in place. And the chorus of Republican voices calling on a power that is not theirs to grant risks turning a life-or-death issue into a partisan circus.”
The perfect storm of tensions over national and local security and the upcoming election make partisan remarks especially loud and hostile. Delaware Democratic Gov. Jack Markell threw some shade at Republicans in his statement by quoting Ronald Reagan, calling out the party as hypocrites in their lip service to the nation’s 40th president: “Ronald Reagan once stood for ‘America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries,’ and one that shares with other countries ‘the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.’ It is a shame the Republicans nationally who would close our borders do not share Reagan’s commitment to America being a welcoming country to those seeking safety from fear and persecution.”
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, one of the last governors to say anything publicly about the issue, also directly addressed the partisan politics fueling other governors’ statements, predicting that Donald Trump was going to use the Paris attacks and anti-Syrian rhetoric and package it with his general anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump has yet to bring Mexicans into this, but he’s using language that is eerily familiar.
But what can individual governors actually do if they don’t want Syrian refugees in their state? We can laugh about New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie shutting down the George Washington Bridge, but the truth is, governors just don’t have (much) authority to do anything in this regard. Although many governors acknowledged that in their statements, they can use obstruction tactics – like ordering certain departments to not cooperate – staying well within their power. Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who directs the organization’s work on refugee resettlement, told Vice that it’s possible that obstructionist tactics could be challenged in court if it came to that.
There are a few pockets of Syrian communities in the United States, mostly concentrated in large metropolitan areas like New York City and New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, although Allentown, Pennsylvania has a sizable community. Most Syrians are resettled in areas with a strong community already in place, and if possible, near their family members.
Despite the outcry over refugees this year, the U.S. has accepted far fewer than in the early 1980s and early 1990s, when quotas were raised in the wake of the Vietnam War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
According to the Migration Policy Institution, since 9/11, only three refugees have been arrested on terrorist charges, out of 784,000. Those numbers barely make a dent in any crime statistics, but if there’s one thing American politicians are good at, it’s rounding up fear in the name of safety.
Photo: French riot police (CRS), soldiers, firefighters, French red cross members and staff of the emergency medical services in France (SAMU) stand at the scene in Saint-Denis, France, near Paris, November 18, 2015 during an operation to catch fugitives from Friday night’s deadly attacks in the French capital. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier