As policymakers across the country stake out their position on whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees in light of the Paris terrorist attacks, a major sticking point appears to be the vetting process for that subset of immigrants.

Nearly 30 Republican governors, including Maine’s Paul LePage, and one Democrat, have said publicly that they will not allow Syrians to be placed in their states over fears that some may be affiliated or sympathetic to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

LePage was traveling Tuesday to Las Vegas to attend a conference of the Republican Governors Association, but his communications director, Peter Steele, said the governor has strong objections to any refugees who are “not property vetted and thoroughly screened.”

“Allowing thousands of unscreened refugees, especially those coming from countries with factions determined to harm Americans, is reckless and could be deadly,” Steele said in an email. “This is not like your great-grandfather’s immigration to America. Very dangerous people are trying to get into our country to do us great harm.”

Despite their collective call, LePage and the other governors have no power to refuse refugees. The Refugee Act of 1980 allows the federal government to accept refugees for humanitarian reasons and says states cannot prevent resettlement.

The Obama administration has defended its refugee vetting process as stringent, and supporters say fears are unwarranted and are being used for political purposes. Refugees from Syria, they say, are fleeing for their lives and the United States is one of many countries that still accepts them.


But the pressure is mounting on the Obama administration to demonstrate that its screening process for refugees is adequate to protect Americans.

Aside from the opposition from governors, some Republican members of Congress, including Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine, have pledged to introduce legislation to change policy or specifically to halt the settlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees next year. Republican presidential candidates also have been critical of accepting Syrian refugees.

Even Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the fears are legitimate, and that now might be a good time to examine current policy.

“That’s why Congress should evaluate who we let into the country and make sure that process is meeting the needs demanded by this threat,” King said. “The intelligence committee is reviewing our government’s ability to track terrorist threats, and I intend to thoroughly exercise my oversight role as a member of that committee to see that the American people are protected.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also a member of the intelligence committee, expressed concerns about current policy as well.

“I have many concerns about the effectiveness of the existing security screening processes, especially for the flood of migrants coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq through Greece and Italy into Western Europe, some of whom may ultimately come to the United States,” she said in a written statement. “We must strengthen our security screening process in the United States and work closely with our allies to share critical intelligence to prevent ISIS from infiltrating legitimate refugees to further its terrorist attacks.”

The recent rhetoric is a sharp departure from two months ago, when a widely circulated photograph of a dead Syrian boy who had washed up on a Turkish beach in September sparked worldwide calls for compassion and prompted Obama to open the door to Syrians.

As the discussion plays out at the national level and is colored by politics, the likelihood that Maine would receive Syrian refugees anytime soon is remote. Maine has settled 442 refugees so far in 2015 – none from Syria.


Bonnie Bagley, associate director of Catholic Charities Maine – the state’s refugee resettlement provider – said it’s important for Mainers to understand that no refugee, whether from Syria or any other country, would end up in Maine without being thoroughly vetted.

“By the time any refugee arrives in Maine, it has been months or more than a year since they fled their country,” she said. “In that time, they have gone through an extensive screening process and have earned legal status.”

Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said Tuesday there is a big difference between Syrian refugees fleeing into Europe and those same refugees coming to the U.S. The most obvious difference is the vast Atlantic Ocean. A refugee can’t simply walk out of Syria and onto U.S. soil.

In fact, by the time any refugee arrives in this country, from Syria or elsewhere, he or she will have endured several months or even a year or more of medical and security screening – a much more stringent vetting process than European countries employ. The screening process includes multiple background checks and in-person interviews.

“The average processing time is two years and includes an in-person interview with an officer of the Department of Homeland Security and continuous security vetting by all U.S. intelligence agencies,” Limon said. “Further, the program emphasizes admitting the most vulnerable refugees, including widows with children, the elderly and infirm who are unlikely to pose a threat.”


The refugee screening process is continually being updated and improved, but administration officials have acknowledged that Syrian refugees present challenges simply because U.S. officials do not have good on-the-ground data from that country. The involvement of a Syrian refugee in the Paris attacks has been rumored but not confirmed. A Syrian passport found near the body of one attacker is thought to be fake, according to multiple media reports.

To date, the U.S. has admitted only about 2,500 Syrians since the civil war erupted in that country in the spring of 2011, a tiny fraction of the millions who have sought refuge in neighboring countries and Europe. Even if 10,000 more were allowed next year, that would be a small percentage of all refugees.

Bagley said Catholic Charities Maine has been approved to settle 425 refugees more in 2016. She didn’t know whether any would be from Syria, but that certainly would be possible.

She noted that even if a state such as Maine were to successfully say ‘No’ to accepting refugees, there is nothing to stop them from moving to Maine once they are settled in another state. She said refugees have legal status once they are settled and are free to live where they want.

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