Updated on November 16, 2015, at 12:10 p.m.
Between April and October of 1980, amid an economic downturn, Fidel Castro announced that Cubans who wanted to leave could do so. It precipitated a mass exodus toward the United States. Around 125,000 Cubans fled the island in the Mariel boatlift. The question was what to do with them once they arrived. After all, huge infusions of refugees are often unwelcome, and rumors that the “Marielitos” included many released criminals made many Americans even less welcoming.
In May, President Jimmy Carter informed Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, then nearing the end of his first term in office, that 20,000 of the immigrants would be housed temporarily at Fort Chaffee in northwest Arkansas. Clinton backed the move by his fellow Democrat publicly, but was privately furious: “How could you do this to me? I busted my ass for Carter. You’re gonna get me beat.” Once they’d arrived, the resettlement process ground to a halt, and in June, a riot erupted, and Clinton called out the National Guard. Several months later, as he’d predicted Clinton lost his bid for reelection to Frank White, a first-time candidate for office. In the same election, Carter lost the White House. The story turned out happily for Clinton, who defeated White in 1982 and went on to become president, but Carter and Clinton reportedly still dislike each other.
The Fort Chaffee story is largely forgotten by the general public, but it’s a good bet that some governors haven’t forgotten its political lessons. On Sunday, after reports that participants in the Paris attacks may have entered Europe alongside the waves of refugees leaving Syria, the Republican governors of Alabama and Michigan announced their states would refuse Syrian refugees. Monday morning, two more Republican governors, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Greg Abbott of Texas, followed suit. Abbott wrote President Obama a letter urging Obama “to halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States.” (Speaking from the G-20 summit in Turkey on Monday, President Obama vowed not to “shut the door” to Syrians.)
“I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people,” Governor Robert Bentley said. “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.”
Alabama does not immediately appear a likely terrorist target, and officials said there were no specific threats. There is a State Department-approved refugee-processing center in Mobile, but apparently no Syrians have been processed or resettled in Alabama.
More interesting is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder was the first to announce he’d block resettlement. “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” he said in the statement. “But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.” The Great Lake State has the highest proportion of Arab American residents, and the second highest number of Arab Americans, in the nation. In September, when he announced his intention to accept refugees, Snyder had presented it as a matter of neighborliness. “Isn't that part of being a good Michigander?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator David Vitter, who polls show trailing in his bid to be elected governor of Louisiana on Saturday, tweeted, “Syrians have already started arriving in Louisiana. That needs to stop immediately. I'll continue to lead that fight & protect Louisianians.”
As Monday went on, more GOP governors were joining the push. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a presidential candidate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and even Charlie Baker, governor of liberal Massachusetts, all followed suit.
Arab American leaders and refugee advocates criticized the moves as alarmist. There’s no magic formula for striking the right balance of security and humanitarianism, but the process for Syrian refugees is hardly cursory—in fact, until the Paris attacks, there was a great deal of criticism arguing it was far too strict. Vetting can take up to two years.
“The ostensible reason for the delay is concern for national security, but in fact the obstacles are mostly bureaucratic,” wrote George Packer. “Throughout the region, refugee-processing centers are understaffed and underfunded. For more than a year, interviews with refugees in Lebanon—where a million displaced Syrians live—have been suspended while the U.S. Embassy undergoes renovations.”
The result is that the U.S. goal for resettlement by the end of the year—before the four bans, which may not be the last word—was just 10,000 refugees. That’s a minuscule fraction of the estimated 4.3 million people who have fled Syria. Refusal to accept refugees amounts to a vote of no confidence in the State Department’s vetting process, and that appears to be well within the governors’ rights. The State Department in September suggested that states would have a say in whether refugees were resettled there.
So far, Democrats have mostly lined up behind the president, just as Bill Clinton did in 1980. During Saturday’s Democratic debate, the three candidates all argued for increased refugee resettlement. Among Republican candidates, there’s little room to move to the right, as many of them have been calling for a stop on Syrian refugees since well before the Paris attacks. On Monday, Ben Carson called on Congress to defund the resettlement program altogether.
On Sunday, Jeb Bush, himself a former governor, called for a straightforward religious test for refugees. He said American efforts should focus on Syrian Christians.
“In addition to that, Jake, I would say that there are a lot of Christians in Syria that have no place now,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union. “They will be either executed or imprisoned either by Assad or by ISIS. And I think we should have—we should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees for the Christians that are being slaughtered.”
Bush’s claim is somewhat suspect. The Assad regime seems to be comparatively friendly to Syrian Christians. (During the last Republican debate, he claimed that Christians were being beheaded in Lebanon, to the bemusement of Lebanese Christians.)
Obama angrily lashed out at Bush Monday, without naming him.
“When I hear folks say that maybe we should just admit the Christians and not the Muslims, when I hear political leaders, saying there would be a religious test for which a person feeling from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folk themselves come from families of people who fled political persecution—that’s shameful. That’s not American. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion,” Obama said, pointedly praising Jeb Bush’s brother George W. Bush for inclusiveness toward Muslims.
Meanwhile, Jake Tapper’s follow-up question to Jeb Bush on Sunday elicited a telling response.
“How does the United States, how do screeners tell which refugees are Christian and which ones are not?” the host asked. Bush replied: “Well, we do that all the time. We do that. It takes almost a year for a refugee to be processed into the United States.” Perhaps the screening process is strong enough after all.
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