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This Lone Democratic Governor Is Calling For the US to Reject Syrian Refugees

New Hampshire Governor Mary Hassan is the first and only Democrat to call for the US to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees after the Paris terror attacks.

by Liz Fields
Nov 17 2015, 10:20pm

Photo by Jim Cole/AP

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan is the first and only Democrat to split from her party and flout the White House by calling for the US to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. But for Republicans, who have loudly and unapologetically called for the president to stop letting Syrian refugees into the country, Hassan still isn't going far enough.

Hassan called on Monday for the government to stop allowing Syrian refugees into the US "until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees, including those from Syria, is as strong as possible to ensure the safety of the American people."

She joined governors in at least 23 other states — all Republican — that have made similar demands amid ongoing investigations into the backgrounds and nationalities of the Paris attackers. At least five of the assailants reportedly travelled to Syria fight for the Islamic State (IS) before returning to France or Belgium, though it's still unclear whether any of them were Syrian nationals. A Syrian passport was reportedly found near one attacker, but new evidence suggests the document was likely forged.

On Tuesday, New Hampshire Representative Frank Guinta said Hassan's response was not strong enough. In an open letter to Hassan, the Republican congressman referenced claims by IS that its fighters will attempt to use Europe's migrant crisis — triggered in large part by the group's bloodied actions in Syria and Iraq — to "infiltrate the West."

"The Governor seems to have joined Republicans in defying Obama administration policy but has not gone as far in the interests of Granite Staters," Guinta wrote, noting that "calling on the president to stop the flow of thousands of Syrians to the US is a moot point. Thousands are already here."

"The Administration simply cannot provide assurances, which Governor Hassan is seeking, that ISIS members are not among them," he added in a statement on Tuesday.

Related: The GOP Is Completely Freaking Out About Syrian Refugees After the Paris Attacks

Guinta's office told VICE News that the congressman is now calling on Hassan to "explicitly" state she will not accept Syrian and Iraqi refugees to New Hampshire, and to withhold resources and funding dedicated to helping Syrian refugees who have already resettled in the state.

In an email Tuesday, Hassan's office said the federal government "has exclusive legal authority for resettling refugees," and that the governor "cannot block resettlement." But Guinta disagrees.

"Governors hold a lot of sway over the budget and state resources to resettle refugees," Brendan Thomas, a spokesman for Guinta's office, said Tuesday. "Both the federal government and state offices are involved in moving refugees around the country, so of course, governors have some say in that process."

Maaesa Alroustom, center, is kissed by her mother, Suha, as her father, Hussam, back, sits with her brother Wesam in their apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. The Alroustoms are Syrian refugees. (Photo by Julio Cortez/AP)

Thomas would not elaborate on the exact kinds of resources for refugees he had in mind, saying that was a "policy question" that should be asked of the governor.

The White House this week stood firmly by its policy to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the US next year. The number pales in comparison to the commitments of other European and North American partners. Germany, for example, has pledged to take in 1 million refugees next year. Prior to the recent attacks, France said it would accept 24,000 refugees. Canada announced the day before the attacks that it would admit 500 Syrian refugees per day until the end of the year, a total of 25,000.

Related: Is It Legal for the Governors of More Than a Dozen States to Refuse to Accept Syrian Refugees?

It's unclear if these figures will change in coming weeks. French President Francois Hollande appeared to support the continued resettlement of refugees in a speech to parliament in the days after the attacks, which left 129 people dead.

"Those who live in those countries, particularly in territories controlled by the Islamic State, are being battered and are fleeing; they are victims of the same terrorist system," Hollande said on Monday. "This is why it is vital for Europe to welcome with dignity those who are eligible for asylum, and to send back to their countries those who aren't, which requires — and this is not yet the case today — an efficient protection of our external borders."

At the second Democratic debate on Saturday night, the candidates expressed support for Obama's refugee pledge and even proposed accepting a greater number than the original quota.

Watch the VICE News dispatch from Paris Battling the Backlash: France At War:

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both advocated an increased allocation of 65,000 asylum seekers, as long as there is appropriate screening and vetting. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has also criticized the calls to shut out refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks, telling supporters at a campaign event on Monday night that "now is not the time for demagoguery and fear-mongering."

There are currently only three Syrian refugees that have been resettled in New Hampshire, a state of 1.3 million, according to the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), which handles refugee processing. The Syrians were all placed in Concord, the state's capital, a city of roughly 42,400.

The Democratic National Committee and Hassan's office did not respond to questions about the governor's decision to split from the White House and the party's official response on refugee resettlement.

Related: The Paris Attacks Could Make Things Even Worse for Syrian Refugees

Under the current process, UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, refers potential refugees for US resettlement to PRM, which then vets the potential candidates. The whole process averages two years and is very "stringent," according to agencies contracted by the federal government to assist the resettlement of refugees in the US.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the US has resettled 784,000 refugees. Of those, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. Two of those arrested were not planning an attack on American soil and the third case was "barely credible," according to the Migration Policy Institute.

"The US refugee program has built up rigorous and multi-layered security screening," Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine voluntary agencies contracted to oversee refugee resettlement in the US, said in a conference call Tuesday. "To close the door on Syrian refugees would be nothing less than signing a death warrant for tens of thousands of families who are fleeing for their lives. If ISIS had hoped the result of the Paris attacks would be small-minded panic, some Governors are giving them their wish."

Hartke warned that governors could act on their declared rejections of Syrian refugees in a number of potentially damaging and unlawful ways, including by limiting social services "that Syrians are entitled to legally." Such a move "could be challenged in court," she said, adding that the broader repercussions of banning future refugees could also potentially "create extraordinary difficulties in the resettlement process" for existing asylum seekers.

"If the governor wants to bar a mother or child from joining family legally residing in a state, it means that they will be likely resettled in a different part of the US," Hartke said. "The importance of family being together is one of those American values of resettling refugees."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn contributed reporting to this story.