This story was updated on Thursday after the House passed legislation about admitting refugees from Syria and Iraq.
WASHINGTON – Earlier this year, the U.S. announced its plan to take in 85,000 refugees by the end of 2016 and a total of 100,000 refugees by 2017. Of the 85,000, this year, 10,000 will be Syrian refugees. So far, the U.S. has taken in about 2,200 Syrian refugees of the 4.1 million registered refugees.
On Monday morning following Friday’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, more than 30 U.S. governors – mainly Republicans – began to press President Barack Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan to bar Syrian refugees, following reports that a Syrian passport was found near a dead Parisian suicide bomber.
A poll conducted by YouGov in September found that, while Americans believe the U.S. should play a role in hosting refugees fleeing from war, only 26 percent felt that the U.S. should take in more Syrian refugees.
Many of the governors proposing to block refugees represent states that already have Syrian refugees living there, including Michigan, which has 207 Syrian refugees.
“Michigan is a welcoming state, and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a letter he posted on Twitter Monday to secretaries of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. “Given the terrible situations in Paris and Lebanon, I am asking for a full review of security clearances and procedures for all refugees who have the potential to be placed in Michigan.”
As the governors who want to refuse more Syrians came forward – many on Twitter – experts questioned whether they have the authority to bar Syrians from coming into their states.
A Senate Judiciary Hearing Oct. 1 reviewed the security and implications of the administration’s Refugee Resettlement Program. Officials from the State Department and the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement testified about how Syrian refugees are screened and accepted.
The process begins with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which refers applicants to one of nine U.S. recruitment offices around the globe. From there, the Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration interviews the applicants to decide if they are eligible to be a refugee under U.S. law. The State Department is responsible for placing these refugees in U.S. communities. Several agencies are involved in the security screening and background checks, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
“I can assure you on our side there will be no shortcuts on security, there will be no shortcuts on medical screening, there will be no shortcuts on processing,” Larry Bartlett, director of admissions in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration program, said at the hearing.
Once admitted as a U.S. permanent resident, refugees are entitled to any benefits and opportunities available to U.S. citizens. They are given assistance for their first eight months in the country to help them get on their feet. The State Department resettles Syrian refugees in communities where there are other Syrians to help them settle in and assimilate faster.
According to Robert Carey, director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, who testified at the hearing, refugees are eased into U.S. society through nonprofit agencies that provide English language services and economic development programs. Carey said that 76 percent of the 30,000 refugees from around the world admitted in 2014 achieved economic self-sufficiency within 180 days.
These relief programs provide the only opportunity for governors to have a hand in the process, because they have control over some of the funding. But the entire process overall is strictly a federal one, and governors cannot stop a refugee from coming to the U.S. or settling in their states.
Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., reminded the room at the very beginning of the hearing that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Almost all of those who spoke at the hearing cited the U.S.’s proud tradition of accepting immigrants and refugees into the country over time.
Obama spoke on Monday at the G20 economic summit in Turkey, saying that the attacks in Paris will not affect the U.S.’s admittance of Syrian refugees.
“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, the House passed legislation in a 289-137 vote that will place tighter restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugees, requiring top administration officials, including the director of the FBI and the director of National Intelligence, to confirm to Congress that each refugee coming in from Syria and Iraq does not pose a security threat. The bill was passed despite a veto threat from Obama on Wednesday.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said before the vote. “Protecting the American homeland is not about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about protecting the American homeland, and so I’m just really quite surprised that the president is using such rhetoric, or is putting out such a veto threat. We know there are gaps in this program and we have to keep this country safe, and that is why this pause is necessary.”
But the bill is expected to have a tougher time being passed in the Senate, with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid vowing to block it after the Thanksgiving recess, if it’s brought up for a floor vote.
Reach reporter Heather Khalifa at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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