Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday waded into a controversial debate over whether to welcome refugees from Syria after last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, saying he would ask the federal government to halt such settlements in his state.
The move was unusual for the first-term Republican governor, who has so far avoided hot-button partisan issues. Hogan joined nearly two dozen other GOP governors who have taken similar positions, including his close friend and political mentor, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety,” Hogan said on his Facebook page.
Hogan’s office did not respond Tuesday when asked how it would communicate the governor’s position to the Obama administration beyond the social-media post.
Thirty-nine Syrian refugees have been resettled in Maryland since the start of their country’s civil war in March 2011, with all but eight of them arriving between Jan. 1 and Nov. 17 of this year, according to State Department data.
Hogan’s statement avoided the type of inflammatory rhetoric that other Republicans, including several 2016 presidential hopefuls, have used in recent days. But his decision drew widespread criticism from Democrats and refugee-resettlement organizations.
“Denying safety to people based solely on their faith or country of origin is intolerant,” said Patrick Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, who accused Hogan of pandering to GOP hard-liners before his scheduled attendance this week at the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas.
“Intolerance is a national Republican value, not a Maryland value,” Murray said.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) posted a Facebook statement of his own, saying that “no nation or state should place unnecessary obstacles in the paths of refugees who are out of all other options and must travel thousands of miles for the safety of their families.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Hogan and the governors who stand with him should have reached out to federal officials for details on the security checks that are required for refugees.
Authorities have said one of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, which left 129 people dead, may have entered Europe on a Syrian passport as part of the wave of Middle Eastern migrants arriving in Greece. The Islamic State extremist group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Refugee-resettlement groups point out that Syrians brought to this country as refugees are subject to a rigorous screening process, unlike migrants who have fled Syria and entered Europe.
Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore branch, said the screening process for refugees takes 18 to 36 months and involves personal interviews and running names and biometric data through databases. He said “rash decisions” by Hogan and other governors in recent days will not solve security problems but instead will “make the refugees more desperate.”
At the same time, senior Obama administration officials have acknowledged the challenge of conducting thorough background checks on people from Syria, which has few criminal or terrorist databases that U.S. law enforcement agencies can examine.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is on a trade mission to India and the Middle East, has made no policy announcements related to Syrian refugees but is coming under pressure from Republicans in his state to do so.
“The governor will monitor the situation closely,” spokesman Brian Coy said. “There’s nothing more important to him than keeping Virginians safe.”
Four Republican state lawmakers said Monday that they will file a bill for the upcoming legislative session urging McAuliffe to refuse to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in Virginia for two years.
“Before we can allow further resettlement in Virginia, we must have full confidence in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its procedures,” said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax). “Virginia is a welcoming state, but our first priority is the safety of our citizens.”
Twenty-four Syrian refugees have been settled in Virginia since the start of the civil war, including 11 since January, according to the State Department data. None have been brought to the District.
“Governors and state officials do not have the capability to prevent a refugee who is here and admitted lawfully to the U.S. from residing in their state. It is not something they can do,” International Rescue Committee spokeswoman Lucy Carrigan said.
“There is a close collaboration with governors and mayors and community leaders about the capacity of the area for refugees and where they can go, but once they have legal status, you cannot impede their transit between different states.”
A total of about 1,900 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States in the past two years, all brought directly from camps and settlements in the countries surrounding Syria. The 1,900 are a tiny fraction of the 200,000 refugees living near Syria who have been approved for resettlement in the United States.
Jenna Portnoy and Laura Vozzella in Richmond and Pamela Constable in Washington contributed to this report.