Growing Number of States Refuse to Accept Syrian Refugees in Wake of Paris Attacks

The U.S. pledged to take in 85,000 refugees in 2016.

ByABC News
November 16, 2015, 3:25 PM

— -- At least half of the country's governors are refusing to take in Syrian refugees in their states amid heightened security concerns following Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris.

Michigan and Alabama were the first states in the country to refuse relocating Syrian refugees on Sunday, and they have now been joined by Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Georgia, Maine, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Iowa, some of which say more information is needed before accepting more refugees.

Govs. Rick Snyder of Michigan, Robert Bentley of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said in separate statements Sunday and Monday that their states would not be relocating refugees from the war-torn country until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security fully reviewed its screening procedures.

"Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration," Snyder said. "But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents."

However, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said refugee status gives individuals both legal status in the U.S. and freedom to move from state to state, making it unclear that the states refusing to take in Syrian refugees could in fact reject them.

At least 129 people died in the coordinated attacks in Paris, and at least one of the attackers was carrying a Syrian passport, which has led authorities to consider he could have entered Europe as a refugee. The alleged mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is believed to have slipped into Syria this year.

The United States in September pledged to take 15,000 refugees fleeing war-torn Syria for the fiscal year that began in October; an estimated 85,000 total refugees are expected to be resettled in the U.S. in 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sept. 20.

Just this year, about 200 Syrian refugees have been relocated to Michigan by one agency alone, and the state has one of the biggest Middle Eastern populations in the country. No refugees have been resettled in Alabama, and in his statement Sunday, Gov. Bentley said things would continue that way.

“I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Bentley said. "I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people. Please continue to join me in praying for those who have suffered loss and for those who will never allow freedom to fade at the hands of terrorists."

In a letter to President Obama on Monday, Abbott said he is directing the Texas Health and Human Services Commission's Refugee Resettlement program to stop relocating Syrian refugees.

"Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees -- any one of whom could be connected to terrorism -- being resettled in Texas," Abbott wrote in the letter. "And I urge you, as President, to halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States."

On Twitter, Hutchinson joined the other governors in opposition to resettling refugees. Arkansas already lagged behind other states in receiving refugees; in 2013 and 2014, the state welcomed only 14 of them, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nathan Deal of Georgia both issued executive orders on Monday to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Deal also called on the Obama administration to work with Georgia authorities in confirming the background of the 59 Syrian refugees recently relocated to Georgia.

In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant said he'd do "everything humanly possible" to stop more Syrian refugees to be placed in his state.

"The policy of bringing these individuals into the country is not only misguided, it is extremely dangerous," he wrote in a statement.

In the Midwest, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence also joined the growing group of governors.

“Effective immediately, I am directing all state agencies to suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved," Pence said in a statement.

And Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois said the attacks in Paris remind of the "all-too-real" security threats facing the country.

"We must find a way to balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens," he said in a statement.

Former Republican presidential candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also said in a statement that Wisconsin will not accept new Syrian refugees, and called on the president to "immediately suspend the program pending a full review of its security and acceptance procedures."

Although the federal government has not contacted Massachusetts regarding Syrian refugees, in a statement to ABC News Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker said ensuring security should be a priority.

“At this time I find the idea of accepting Syrian refugees highly concerning and have no plans to accept them into our state and believe the federal government has an obligation to carry out extensive background checks on everyone seeking to enter the United States," he wrote.

Nearby in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage released a statement saying he "adamantly opposes" resettling refugees in Maine and will take "every lawful measure" in his power to prevent it.

Early Monday afternoon, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey went a step forward and asked Congress to amend the law and grant states more oversight in the placement of refugees.

In a press conference shortly after, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory also asked the federal government to "cease" the relocation of refugees in his state and provide more information about the 59 refugees from Syria already in North Carolina.

"I think he's going to get more requests from other governors," McCrory said of President Obama. "I care for these [refugees] but what worries me is that some of these people may actually be ISIS."

And in neighboring South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley took a 180-degree turn, from saying she would not call for a change in the state's current refugee policy to, within hours, reverse her position and request the federal government not to send Syrian refugees to her state. South Carolina has not received any Syrian refugees since the war started in 2011.

Farther south in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying the state's Department of Children and Families would not help with the relocation of up to 425 possible Syrian refugees to the state. The governor also asked Congress to prevent the administration from using federal money to fund that relocation.

Taking a more nuanced approach, a spokesman for Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich said the governor is writing a letter to the president asking him to stop resettling Syrians in the U.S.

"The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed," the statement said. "We are also looking at what additional steps Ohio can take to stop resettlement of these refugees."

The concerned governors got validation from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who on Monday said in Birmingham, Al. that although she hopes the U.S. can remain open and welcoming to those fleeing violence, she sees through the governors' anxieties.

"I fundamentally understand that you in a position of authority, like you governor and others, in addition to having compassion for others you have to be safety conscious for your people," she said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union came out against the states, accusing them of fabricating a link between the Paris attacks and refugee relocation in the U.S.

"Making policy based on this fear mongering is wrong for two reasons. It is factually wrong for blaming refugees for the very terror they are fleeing, and it is legally wrong because it violates our laws and the values on which our country was founded," said ACLU director Cecillia Wang in a statement.

More than 7 million Syrians have been displaced by war, and by the end of September the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had referred 18,000 cases to the United States for resettlement.