North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday joined about two dozen other mostly Republican governors in asking the federal government to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into their states.
Their calls came three days after the Paris terror attacks, in which one assailant had what was later found to be a fake Syrian passport.
“My primary duty as governor is to keep the citizens of North Carolina safe,” McCrory told reporters in Charlotte.
The response to Friday’s attacks from McCrory and others – including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – sparked a national debate and drew a sharp rebuke from human rights advocates.
Never miss a local story.
“It’s appalling and it’s fear-mongering and it’s terrible public policy,” said Robin Kirk, who co-chairs the executive committee of the Duke Human Rights Center. “These are people fleeing ISIS. That’s why they’re risking their lives and the lives of their children. … They are not a horde of suicide bombers.”
It’s unclear whether the requests will slow the arrival of any refugees.
A White House official said the administration “remains steadfastly committed” to President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. in the coming year. Officials have determined that can be done “safely (and) consistent with our national security.”
McCrory’s action drew praise from some GOP lawmakers and conservatives. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina called for the program to be suspended. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called for a “timeout” on the program.
In Washington, U.S. Reps. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte and Richard Hudson of Concord both got behind bills to slow the settlement of refugees.
And Rep. Carl Ford, a Republican from Rowan County, asked McCrory not only to stop the influx of Syrian refugees but to “call on the Feds to deport the 44 who are already here.”
Obama: Don’t ‘close our hearts’
McCrory said that 59 Syrian refugees have settled in North Carolina from the beginning of 2014 to last month. It’s unclear what the governor can do to stop the arrival of more.
He formally made the request in a letter to Obama, whose State Department works with local groups on refugee resettlement. Speaking in Turkey, Obama seemed to reject such requests.
“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism, they are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife,” he said. “It is very important … that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”
Obama said it’s important “not to fall into that trap, not to feed that dark impulse inside of us.”
But by the end of the day, McCrory had been joined by about two dozen other governors, including the chief executives of South Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, Texas, Georgia and Arkansas. All opposed admission of Syrian refugees out of fear that they might include violent extremists.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s refugee resettlement program not to participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the state.
Several governors acknowledged that they don’t have the ability to stop the federal government from aiding and resettling refugees in the United States.
According to the Washington Post, nonprofits who work with the federal government to resettle refugees said that, while the cooperation of states helps, no governor has the power to impede the movement of refugees once they have legal status.
“Governors and state officials do not have the capability to prevent a refugee who is here and admitted lawfully to the U.S. from residing in their state. It is not something they can do,” said Lucy Carrigan, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee.
Citing information from the governor’s office, the Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation, reported as many as 270 more Syrian refugees are expected in the state.
The paper reported that the Syrians are among a total of 4,828 refugees from 36 countries transplanted to North Carolina from the start of 2014 to Oct. 1.
“North Carolina has a proud tradition and a humanitarian obligation of providing a hand up for those in need, including international refugees,” McCrory said Monday.
McCrory said the state should not get additional refugees until he can be satisfied with the thoroughness and effectiveness of federal background and security checks conducted on refugees coming into the country.
According to the White House official, all refugees are subject to “the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States.” That includes vetting by the FBI, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and intelligence officials.
But Francis De Luca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, said, “It is vital to halt the influx of Syrians and others from the Middle East until we can ensure none are threats to the people of North Carolina.”
However, Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said, “It is factually wrong for blaming refugees for the very terror they are fleeing, and it is legally wrong because it violates our laws and the values on which our country was founded.”
The ‘call of the gospel’
Last month a Syrian family of five was resettled in Charlotte with the help of Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte.
Diocese spokesman David Hains said through Catholic Charities, the diocese has worked with the State Department to find homes for refugees from around the world.
Invoking the Bible, he said that would continue.
“We remain committed to fulfilling the call of the gospel in regard to the resettlement of any and all refugees that come our way,” he said. “Refugees have been fleeing terrorism since the family of Jesus fled from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the edict of King Herod that all baby boys under the age of 2 should be put to death.”
The News & Observer contributed.