LAS VEGAS — Republican governors meeting here this week vented their anger at what they called President Obama’s dismissive attitude toward their concerns about plans to continue to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last weekend.
Officials in at least 30 states have said they would resist any new refugee relocations until adequate safeguards are put in place to screen people for possible terrorist links.
The House is scheduled to vote on legislation Thursday that would block refugees from Syria and Iraq from coming to the United States unless the government can verify that they pose no threat. Obama has threatened to veto such legislation.
The governors, in Nevada for the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association, said they are exploring other remedies to prevent the federal government from continuing the resettlement process, arguing that they have the legal authority to bring the program to a halt temporarily even without action by Congress.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he disagreed with those who say the states are virtually powerless to prevent the federal government from doing what it wants. He pointed to federal statutes that he said give governors the power to stop funds that flow from Washington through the states to refugee resettlement organizations.
“We are saying to the refugee resettlement programs in Texas that we are not going to allow you to accept and relocate refugees from Syria,” Abbott said. “Those fund flows are halted.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence told reporters he had issued orders to suspend the program while still favoring action by Congress and acceptance by the president. “I believe governors have the authority over our state governments,” he said.
Earlier this week, Obama accused Republicans who have called for a suspension of the program of giving in to “fear and panic” in the face of the terrorist attacks and mocked them for being afraid of “widows and orphans.” Administration officials have argued that the reaction by GOP officials serves the recruiting efforts of Islamic State militants.
Republican governors lashed back Wednesday. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey accused the White House of being in “full damage control” during a conference call with state officials earlier in the week. “This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s not a one-party issue. It’s something we’re hearing from all the people of our state.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez accused the president of not taking seriously the concerns of the American people. “These are concerns, serious concerns, questions that the American people want answered,” she said. “What was sad and very disappointing was how dismissive the president is when we ask tough questions of how are we going to vet individuals when there is no documentation.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan echoed the complaints of Martinez that the president mocked Republicans for what he said were legitimate questions. “We took a very cautious and reasoned approach,” he said. “If we can’t ask for assurances from the federal government that they’re going to follow proper procedures, [it is] just absurd.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said genuine fears of possible terrorist attacks, rather than politics, had spurred calls to halt the process.
“This is very much about the fact that 9/11 is too close in our memory,” she said, referring to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “We will continue to let everyone know that this is something that puts everybody at risk, Republicans and Democrats, and something has to be done. And if he does choose to veto, we’re not going to stop.”
Republican governors sought to stress that they do not oppose refugee resettlements in general, noting the country’s long history in accepting refugees from around the world. Pence said it was appropriate to halt the Syrian refugee resettlements, as he has tried to do in his state. But he added, “None of which takes away from the fact that the state of Indiana, like every state represented here, has a long tradition of opening our arms and our homes and our charities to refugees.”
Abbott said the White House had tried to “candy-coat an unworkable system” and had offered state officials “pabulum” in response to their concerns. He said he would favor the same approach followed by the Clinton administration during the conflict in Kosovo in the 1990s, which was to work with other nations to establish a safe zone for refugees where they could be screened before being resettled elsewhere.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the current RGA chairman, said Republican and Democratic governors were asking the administration to work with governors. “We do have a history of welcoming people and we want to do that,” he said. “This is not about Republican governors saying no. It’s about Republican governors saying we’d like to make certain that the process is smart and strategic, and we’d like to be part of the process.”