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Governors call for ban on Syrian refugees; Minnesota, ND, not joining in

A young man carries a child as refugees and migrants arrive on a boat on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 7, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Forum News Service and Reuters

More than a dozen state governors said Monday they will refuse to accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks, part of a mounting Republican backlash against an Obama administration plan to accept thousands more immigrants from the war-torn country.

Governors in North Dakota and Minnesota didn't join the call to bar Syrian refugees, while Wisconsin was among those calling for such a safeguard

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple pointed out that the state's only resettlement organization doesn't expect to place any refugees from Syria in the state.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the organization that resettles refugees in the state, says it told the federal government earlier this month that it doesn't make sense to place Syrian refugees in North Dakota.

That's because LSSND is focused on resettling refugees seeking to reunite with family already living here, and there's not an established Syrian community in the state, the group's CEO, Jessica Thomasson, said in a statement issued Monday.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statement Monday saying he is willing to accept Syrian refugees, given what he learned from the White House.

"My first priority is to protect the safety of the people of Minnesota," said Dayton, a Democrat. "I have been assured by the White House that all refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States."

Dayton's willingness to accept Syrian refugees was opposed by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who urged Dayton not to accept refugees yet due to doubt about the federal security procedures related to refugees.

"I strongly urge you to take another step toward protecting Minnesotans by calling on President Obama to halt the acceptance of refugees from Syria into the United States until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security procedure and clearances," Daudt wrote.

The speaker said that Minnesotans need assurances that terrorists are not slipping through as refugees.

Daudt told Dayton that FBI Director James Comey recently told Congress that there are gaps in the country's refugee screening process.

Minnesota has accepted some Syrian refugees in recent years, but not in large numbers.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker joined a growing number of mostly Republican governors saying they don't want the refugees yet.

"There may be those who will try to take advantage of the generosity of our country and the ability to move freely within our borders through this federal resettlement program, and we must ensure we are doing all we can to safeguard the security of Americans,” Walker said.

CNN reports that 14 states have not received any Syrian refugees: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Earlier this month, LSSND told federal authorities that "North Dakota does not have the capacity to increase the number of refugee resettlements indicated for the upcoming fiscal year," Thomasson said. "LSSND submitted a plan to the U.S. State Department for 455 refugee placements, of which at least 75 percent of the total people will be reunited with family already living in North Dakota. The determination of who will be resettled in any resettlement site in the United States is made by the U.S. State Department in conjunction with the voluntary agencies LSSND works with (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries)."

Experts in immigration law said the governors likely had no legal standing to block the federal government from settling refugees admitted into the country, but noted that they could obstruct the plans by cutting funding to programs and creating an atmosphere of hostility.

"The federal government has the power over immigration," said Deborah Anker, a professor of law at Harvard Law School who specializes in immigration issues. "If they admit Syrian refugees, they're here. People aren't going to the (state) border. The federal government is going to bring them in."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said it was unclear if a governor had the right to block refugees from entering a state. Instead, he sent a letter to Congressional Republicans asking for their help in blocking Syrian refugees from being resettled in his state.

"We are asking the U.S. Congress to take immediate and aggressive action to prevent President Obama and his administration from using any federal tax dollars to fund the relocation ... without an extensive evaluation of the risk these individuals may pose to our national security," Scott wrote.

Leading Republican presidential candidates called on President Barack Obama to suspend the plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year and some Republican lawmakers began moves in Congress to try to defund the policy.

The State Department said the administration would stand by its plan, reiterating that the refugees would be subject to stringent security checks, and Obama said that the terrorism problem should not be equated with the refugee crisis.

But Republican leaders said it was too risky to allow a further influx of refugees after Friday's attacks by the Syria-based Islamic State group that killed 129 people.

"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," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in an open letter to Obama. "Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity."

Refugee advocates argued that the governors and other Republicans are targeting those who are overwhelmingly victims rather than perpetrators of extremist violence.

"These are victims of the same terror that we're so horrified by," said Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy at Jewish nonprofit refugee service HIAS. "The impact on people is going to be tragic and the impact on our reputation as a global humanitarian leader is also going to be tragic."

The State Department denied that admitted refugees, who are all extensively screened before being allowed into the country, present any threat and said it would seek to alleviate the governors' concerns.

"We take their concerns seriously," spokesman Mark Toner said of the governors' statements. "We disagree that these people, individuals frankly many of them the most vulnerable (in the region), represent any kind of real threat."

Republican concerns were to some extent echoed in Canada, where some provincial and municipal leaders said a plan by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year does not allow for enough security checks.