White House Pushes Back Against Governors' Calls to Block Refugees

The Obama administration is trying to assuage national security concerns—and remind states that refugees are handled by the federal government.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is ordering a review of security checks for refugees coming to Utah on the heels of the last week's attacks in Paris. The Republican governor said in a statement Monday that he wants state and federal authorities to reevaluate how they screen refugees.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Faced with more than half of the nation’s governors announcing their opposition to bringing in Syrian refugees following the Paris attacks, senior Obama administration officials sought Tuesday to assuage the country’s national security concerns—and remind those who want to shut down their states’ borders that the resettlement program is administered at the federal level.

In a background call open to members of the press, the officials said Syrian refugees undergo additional screening in an already-thorough vetting process that involves interviews and biometric checks from intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. The U.S. refugee-resettlement process takes, on average, 18 to 24 months.

"This is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law, and refugees arriving in the U.S. are protected by the Constitution,” said one senior administration official. “So while state and local governments have an important consultative role to play in the resettlement of refugees, the resettlement program is, as you’re hearing, administered by the federal government."

The Obama administration announced in September that the U.S. would take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees (and 85,000 total) next year to alleviate the horror from a war that has lasted more than four years. Of the millions of Syrians displaced, the U.S. has taken in only about 2,000 such refugees. It wasn’t until the recent Paris terrorist attacks that 27 governors began their protest, which has spread to the Capitol, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan called Tuesday for a “pause” in the refugee program.

At the very least [it] strikes me that we need a pause or a moratorium because the American people are quite concerned and upset about the possibility of terrorists coming into our country through some kind of refugee program,” said McConnell. “I for one don’t feel particularly comforted by the assertion that our government can vet these refugees.”

Even Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer seemed to agree, saying Tuesday that a "pause" might be necessary and that he was waiting to hear more information from the Obama administration.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks that left 129 dead Friday, and France has retaliated, bombing targets in Syria. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the suicide bombers, and although Serbian and French officials have reportedly said it is fake, some of the attackers are believed to have spent time in Syria in the past few years. Republicans have latched onto those details and prior comments by FBI Director James Comey acknowledging “gaps” in the screening system for Syrian refugees.

The administration official Tuesday said the U.S. could actually "be a home for many more refugees” than it is taking in, citing the much bigger Vietnamese resettlement in the U.S. decades ago. The official said there were plans to propose an expansion before the president’s announcement.

But the official also acknowledged the growing concerns of mostly Republican politicians, saying the administration would hold calls and briefings for governors, mayors, and Congress members this week. "The thing I most fear about this current discussion going on in the United States is that we will lose bipartisan support for this program that it has enjoyed for decades through Democratic administrations, through Republican administrations, through different majorities in the House and Senate,” said the official. "This is a very precious thing, I think. In the current day and age it’s been a rare thing. So I hope that that continues.”

CORRECTION: Due to a State Department error, the original version of this story incorrectly said that a quarter of Syrian refugees are adults over 60. The correct number is 2.5 percent.