Santi Palacios/AP
A Syrian woman and her son covered with thermal blankets arrive from the Turkish coast on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos Monday. Of the 18,000 cases the UNHCR referred to the US by the end of September, more than half were children. Others included women who headed households, torture victims, and those with special medical needs.

Why governors reject Syrian refugees: Is screening process adequate?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, at least 17 US governors say they will not resettle Syrian refugees in their states until their public safety concerns are addressed.

At least 17 governors say they will not accept Syrian refugees into their states, citing fears that some refugees could plan terrorist attacks similar to those carried out in Paris last Friday.

Authorities investigating the coordinated attacks, which killed at least 129 people, said on Sunday they believe at least one of the suspects entered Europe among a wave of Syrian refugees, entering Greece in early October.

As of the end of September, about 1,500 Syrian refugees had settled in the United States. At that time, President Obama instructed his administration to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next 12 months. Now, in the wake of the Paris attacks and the revelation about one of the suspects, a number of US governors say they will not resettle Syrian refugees until their public safety concerns are addressed.

The public appears to have concerns as well, with a new Reuters/Ipsos poll finding that 52 percent of Americans think that countries accepting Syrian refugees are "less safe."

Yet the US has one of the most rigorous vetting processes for refugees in the world. Also, many of the refugees are screened in advance by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – a process that tends to send to the US those candidates most in need of help, who in general pose little threat. They then are subject to the lengthy US vetting process. Thus many experts consider the reaction from governors to be unfounded.

"Refugees are vetted more closely than any population brought into the United States," says Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First in New York.

The governors don't have legal standing to prevent refugee resettlement, experts say. But, although the vetting and ultimate approval or rejection of refugees is performed by the federal government, state agencies are involved when it comes to resettling refugees in specific communities. The governors who have raised concerns are essentially barring state agencies from working with the federal government.

"States don't have any authority to say who cannot enter the United States, [but] they can be obstructive about settling people in their communities," says Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

On Sunday, Republican Govs. Rick Snyder of Michigan and Robert Bentley of Alabama were the first to issue statements saying their states would not welcome Syrian refugees. They were followed on Monday by at least 14 other GOP governors and one Democratic one (New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan). Three Democratic governors said on Monday they will continue to welcome Syrian refugees.

In a letter to Mr. Obama, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) of Texas wrote, "Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity."

"As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril," he added.

Other governors took a softer tone, with some explicitly trying to reconcile their decision with their states’ history of inclusion and acceptance.

"Indiana has a long tradition of opening our arms and homes to refugees from around the world," wrote Gov. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana in a statement. "[But] unless and until the state of Indiana receives assurances that proper security measures are in place, this policy [of suspending the resettlement of Syrian refugees] will remain in full force and effect."

The opposition by Governors Snyder and Charlie Baker (R) of Massachusetts represent an about-face for both men, coming months after they expressed interest in working with the federal government to resettle Syrian refugees in their states.

"This is clearly a global crisis, and we should do as a nation what I would sort of call our fair share," Governor Baker said in early September.

'Least likely way for terrorist to enter US'

America's screening protocols involve multiple federal agencies in a process that takes, on average, 18 to 24 months. Refugees are vetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the intelligence community, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in September. Biographical and biometric information is also collected, and the refugees are subject to in-person interviews.

Even after they're admitted to the country, the government is able to keep close tabs on them, says Ms. Newland of the Migration Policy Institute.

"The refugee resettlement program is the least likely way for a terrorist to infiltrate the US," she adds. "You go through so much scrutiny, [and] once you're here, you're connected [to the system]. It's difficult to disappear into a community that would support terrorism."

The proposed US contribution to Syrian refugee settlement pales in comparison to what some other countries are doing. Germany has committed to taking in 800,000 refugees, and Canada announced it will stick with plans to take in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year, despite the Paris attacks. Overall, however, the US has taken in more refugees over the past 40 years than any other country.

The UNHCR has a strong on-the-ground presence in Syrian refugee camps and, as part of its screening process, is identifying the most vulnerable candidates in urgent need of relocation. More than half of the 18,000 cases that the UNHCR referred to the US by September were children, The New York Times reported, and the others included torture survivors, people with special medical needs, and women who head households.

US screening vs. Europe's

Contrasting the US position with Europe’s, experts say America is in the enviable position of being able to choose which refugees to admit before they're allowed on US soil. In Europe, with thousands of refugees entering daily by land and sea, such in-depth screening is not possible. The Paris suspect in question reportedly entered Greece by providing his fingerprint and data from a fake Syrian passport.

"It's apples and oranges," says Jennifer Sime, a senior vice president of the International Rescue Committee.

"You have a situation in Europe where you have very large numbers of people coming in through different points where there is some sort of registration – people register, information is taken, and then they continue on their journey," she adds. “To apply to become a refugee in the United States, it's not just a quick registration process. It's a two-year process."

The effectiveness of America’s screening process can be gauged by the number of incidents involving refugees and terrorist threats in recent years. Since the 9/11 attacks – and a subsequent tightening of refugee screening protocols – the US has admitted about 784,000 refugees in total, Newland says. There have been three arrests of refugees on terrorism-related charges – two for allegedly plotting to send weapons to insurgents in Iraq (the loophole that allowed them to claim refugee status has since been closed, she says), and one for allegedly trying to channel money to a terrorist group in Uzbekistan. Both plots were foiled in their early stages, and the two Iraqi refugees were placed under FBI surveillance five months after arriving in the US.

"On what basis are they saying that [screening is inadequate]?" Newland asks, referring to the governors. "They're certainly not saying there have been security threats from recently resettled refugees, because there certainly haven't been."

Americans don't have to look very far back to find a time when the country was gripped in a similar refugee crisis. In the late 1970s and early '80s, the US brought in almost 2 million refugees from Vietnam. President Ford authorized the relocation of 130,000 highly skilled and well-educated Vietnamese to the US, despite a national poll at the time finding that only 36 percent of Americans favored Vietnamese immigration, according to a 2006 essay for Immigration Daily by Alicia Campi.

Today, the Vietnamese-American population numbers 1.6 million, according to the Pew Research Center. The community is "upbeat and optimistic," Pew says, and it has a median household income of $53,400, slightly above the US average.

"What we learned from that process is that refugees who resettle in this country tend to do extremely well over time and turn out to be stalwart American citizens," says Newland. "That's the lesson of refugee resettlement in our country."

Speaking at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey on Monday, Obama discussed the Syrian refugee crisis in the context of the ongoing conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"Many of these refugees are victims of terrorism themselves, that's what they're fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values," he said. "Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety, and ensure our own security. We can and must do both."

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