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.”