Dozens of Syrian refugees were settled in Maryland and Virginia in June, part of a sharp nationwide increase as the U.S. government scrambles to meet its goal of admitting 10,000 refugees in fiscal 2016.
The surge has come despite opposition from more than half of the nation’s governors, including Maryland’s Larry Hogan (R), all of whom say they are not satisfied with the federal government’s assurances that refugees are carefully vetted and screened.
Nationwide, almost 2,400 Syrian refugees arrived in June, according to State Department data, nearly as many as the 2,800 brought here from October through May.
The Obama administration says it is on track to reach its Syrian refugee resettlement target, meaning that nearly 5,000 more will arrive by Oct. 1. Close to 5 million Syrians have fled their country during five years of civil war.
The pace of refugee resettlement has quickened in part because processing facilities in Istanbul and in Amman, Jordan, have been upgraded and more Department of Homeland Security teams have been deployed to interview refugees, a State Department official said.
“We pushed all those things together so they would happen sequentially and more quickly,” said Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
In Maryland, 78 Syrians were settled in June — bringing the total to 115 since October. Sixty-seven arrived in Virginia last month, out of 87 resettled in the state this year. Fifteen of them have been placed in Roanoke, where the Democratic mayor attracted national controversy last fall for citing the internment of Japanese citizens as a reason to bar Syrian refugees.
No refugees have been brought to the District, according to the State Department data.
Advocates for refugees contend that it’s unreasonable to demand absolute guarantees that someone from Syria will do no harm — especially when such restrictions aren’t placed on other immigrants or refugees from other conflict-ridden regions.
“Refugees are and continue to be the most thoroughly screened travelers to the United States,” Henshaw said.
But after the Paris terrorist attacks in November, a group of mostly Republican governors and federal lawmakers said the federal government’s vetting of refugees is inadequate and could allow terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State or other extremist groups to slip through.
“No matter how many additional staff the Obama administration puts towards vetting, administration officials, including FBI Director [James B.] Comey, have stated that the U.S. government does not have the resources and dramatically lacks the necessary information to fully vet Syrian refugees,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
At least two terrorists involved in the Paris attacks crossed into Europe claiming to be fleeing Syria. These individuals moving through European borders are in a different situation, however, than residents of refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey who are screened by the State Department and resettled in the United States.
The State Department says that about a dozen of nearly 785,000 refugees admitted since Sept. 11, 2001, were arrested or removed from the United States because of terrorism concerns dating to before their resettlements, although none were Syrian.
Such assurances have not changed the minds of some governors, including Hogan, who reiterated last week that he does not believe refugees from Syria are sufficiently screened.
Hogan, like Goodlatte, pointed to past statements by Comey, who said it’s practically impossible to certify that a refugee — or anyone else — poses absolutely no risk, especially because U.S. soldiers haven’t been on the ground in Syria and have no access to government databases there.
“They’ve got no background checks, they don’t know anything about the people coming in, and that’s not good enough for us,” Hogan told The Washington Post during an appearance on the Eastern Shore last week. “They were going to skirt the procedures and push these people in an emergency fashion without going through any procedures.”
But the State Department says that no vetting steps have been skipped to accommodate the surge in Syrian refugees, and Comey says that screenings have improved since the Iraq War.
The process, which can take up to two years, includes in-person interviews and running fingerprints and names against government databases of international travel, encounters with immigration authorities, and intelligence gathered in Iraq and by the U.S. Counterterrorism Center.
Federal officials say they’ve organized calls, held briefings and sent letters offering Hogan and other governors assurances about the vetting of refugees.
Hogan’s spokesmen declined to make him available for a formal interview or answer additional questions about why the governor finds such assurances insufficient, what specific assurances he wants and why he hasn’t taken action to block Syrian refugees if he believes they pose a risk.
The resettlement process is managed by private agencies with federal funding. State officials do not play a direct role and have little power to intervene. But in seven of the 10 states with the highest number of Syrian refugees admitted this fiscal year — including Michigan, Arizona and Florida — governors are opposed to such resettlements.
States that have tried to actively block the arrival of refugees have been unable to do so.
Judges rejected attempts by Texas and Indiana to block refugee resettlements, while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) backed away from a plan to bar Syrian refugees and deny them aid after the state’s attorney general found that he lacked the authority to do so.
New Jersey withdrew from the federal refugee-resettlement program, but placements persisted, with nonprofit groups picking up the slack.
Refugee-settlement agencies say such opposition from elected officials sends a troubling message to a vulnerable population.
“It’s a very scary-sounding thing to someone who has already been forced out of their country by persecution, often by a government or a terrorist group,” said Matthew Soerens, spokesman for World Relief, which has helped place nearly 500 Syrians.
Advocates say that many local communities and private individuals, in Maryland and elsewhere, continue to welcome refugees.
“We have had hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from everyday citizens of Maryland offering their support,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore branch.
Mostafa Hassoun, a 23-year-old refugee, says he’s made many American friends since arriving in Annapolis last year, though he still encounters intolerance from some corners.
“They fear all Syrians are terrorists, or something like that,” said Hassoun, who fled to Turkey with his family when he was 18 and was the only one granted refugee status in the United States.
“I’m Syrian. I love freedom and democracy. I don’t want to kill people.”
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.