His Republican colleagues across the nation — especially those running for president — were signing executive orders banning any new Syrian refugees from the state or drawing the line at "not even" orphans under age 5.
Meanwhile, Democratic governors like Washington's Jay Inslee were warning of possible Japanese internment camp-like situations if the U.S. doesn't open its doors to these refugees.
Sandoval decided on a more middle ground, asking Obama not to send any Syrian refugees to the state until the federal government could clarify how it vets these people. (Governors, he says, don't have the authority to stop refugees at their border.) Essentially, he's not threatening to ban them from the state, but he's not welcoming them without asking questions about the screening process first.
The Fix reached him by phone in Las Vegas this week to talk more about his decision. Our interview is edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: Talk to me about your thought process. The decision you arrived at seems more measured than other Republican governors.
SANDOVAL: It’s my nature to be a fact-gatherer, and first and foremost, I’m concerned about the security and safety of the residents of Nevada. As you know, we are a very tourist-based economy, and so there are — I think literally 58 million people came to Nevada last year, and I want to ensure that they have full faith in their safety and security when they visit here. That’s a priority for me on day one.
Then what happened in Paris occurred, and it was a horrific tragedy, and the facts are still coming out, but one of the facts that came out of the event was one of the individuals involved was a Syrian refugee. [Editor's note: After our conversation, one of the attackers's passports indicating he followed the migrant trail was determined to be fake. Reports differ one whether the attacker exploited the migrant trail.] I’m also a former federal judge, and it’s my understanding – and I've asked for an opinion from the attorney general – that as governor, I don’t have the authority to say, "I’m not going to accept refugees." So I wanted to take a more thoughtful approach, which was, "Mr. President, would you or the Department of State or immigration authorities please pause and take time to look at your process to ensure that we’re doing everything we can?"
THE FIX: The refugee resettlement process takes a year and a half to two years already, and taxpayers spend $1.1 billion a year on it. Nearly every single intelligence agency is involved, and refugees go through personal interviews before being admitted. How do you think of what they're doing, and what would you do differently?
SANDOVAL: That’s part of why I’m conducting the due diligence I am. I have the opportunity to participate in a governors-only phone call yesterday with representatives from the State Department and immigrant officials and the White House. [Wednesday] I met with Catholic Charities of Nevada, which is the NGO that receives the refugees when they come to Nevada and assists them, and they took me through that vetting process as well. What I will say is this: There is a very important distinction [with Syrian refugees]. We do have officials and State Department representatives on the ground in all of these countries we accept refugees from, people who are conducting those interviews, that are doing the finger prints, and doing that process. It's different in Syria. We don't have those resources. And so where the lack of information comes is how those individuals are handled.
That's an important distinction, and I want to be able to stand in front of the people of Nevada and tell them that we have a strong process that looks at their safety and security and really vets those individuals and refugees who are frankly fleeing some terrible and horrific situations. I feel better about the process now that I've learned more about it. But it hasn't really specifically answered that question.
THE FIX: What if you don't get any satisfactory answers beyond that it's really hard to check the backgrounds of refugees in Syria?
SANDOVAL: That’s kind of where we are right now, and frankly that’s the question that the president has to answer. And for me, that creates doubt, and where there’s doubt, there’s risk. And that’s a risk I frankly don’t have to take for the people of the state of Nevada.
THE FIX: Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Nevada U.S. Senate candidates Rep. Joe Heck (R) and former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto (D) all indicated they support either pausing or stopping the admission of Syrian and/or Iraqi refugees into Nevada. Even Senate Minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seems to have left the door open for a pause in the program. How much did political pressure from lawmakers in Nevada and beyond factor into your decision?
SANDOVAL: The only letter I've seen is the one from Heller, and frankly, I think he's asked me to do something that I have no authority to do.
I believe — at least my understanding of the law is — the authority to do that lies solely with the president and the administration. I or the other governors can say we're not going to do it, but I don't think we have the authority to do that.
THE FIX: We have Republican presidential candidates (who are also governors) calling for not allowing orphans under the age of 5 in. Do you think some Republicans are overreacting to the risk?
SANDOVAL: I'm not going to go there. I think every governor is going to take his or her position, and they're going to have to defend their own position.
THE FIX: On the other hand we have Democrats implying it's unpatriotic to even consider halting the process. How do you strike a reasonable middle ground when this has turned into such a heated political debate?
SANDOVAL: I am doing my due diligence. I participate on phone calls, I expect an informed and detailed response from the president. I met with the local agency here in Las Vegas that takes the refugees and spoke with them about their experiences with the refugees. The record they have is frankly excellent, and they've been very successful in matters of the refugees that come to Las Vegas and the requirements they have for those refugees that ensure that children go to school, that they are learning the English language and employed and are doing everything they need to do. So they have a very good record here.
But I'm the chairman of our homeland security commission, and we have a regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 10, and I will move that up by about a week and ask for a presentation in terms of what the processes are here in Nevada.
THE FIX: Refugee resettlement advocates have said until recently, finding people homes has been a nonpartisan issue. The refugee program in its current form has been functioning since the mid-1970s, has accepted about 3 million people so far, and largely had bipartisan support, even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. What's different now?
SANDOVAL: I don't know if I can say those questions weren't asked after 9/11. But the world changed. And we've put together probably one of the most, if not the most, thorough security processes. But we can always do better. And I don't think this is any admission of weakness to stop and say, "Are there other changes, are there other ways that we can improve the process?"
The fact that I'm saying that — and that perhaps together we're saying that — we can and should do more and ask questions, that's not a criticism of what's been done in the past. It's just ensuring that we are reacting appropriately to what's going on now and the way the world has changed.
THE FIX: It seems like elected officials are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position on Syrian refugees. How do you explain all of this to Nevadans on either side of the issue?
SANDOVAL: This is the greatest country in the world, and one of the things that makes us great is we are a nation of immigrants and have been historically and always will be. And I think our country is better for that. Just like anything, you're not going to satisfy everybody, and I believe the approach I've taken is a thoughtful one, and given the circumstances is in the best interest of the people in our state. It continues to take into account what I said, which is first and foremost on my mind the safety and security of Nevadans, but also, we have to balance the fact that we are a country of immigrants.
But I'm finding I'm getting hundreds of phone calls [about the refugee debate], and there's a big information vacuum right now. And I'm not exaggerating. I have three people full time who literally are hanging up the phone and picking it up. And people are scared. And part of the reason that they are scared is because there isn't enough information out there, and that is why I'm doing the due diligence that I am.
THE FIX: President Obama said this week he thinks the United States can protect its citizens while keeping its door open to Syrians in need. Do you agree we can do both?
SANDOVAL: We have to lead, but we also have to listen. And I suppose that what I agree with is if we're going to tell people that we're doing the job we need to do, we also have to be willing to admit that if it is in our best interest to stop and look at the process and ensure that they're the best that they can be.