Baker says no to more Syrian refugees, for now

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BOSTON Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, may not be “slamming the door” on new Syrian refugees, but he said he’s unwilling to accept more until he’s convinced none represent a threat to the state.

Baker joined more than a dozen other governors in rejecting new refugees from the war-torn country following the terrorist attacks that left more than 130 dead in Paris late Friday. At least one of the attackers reportedly traveled a common refugee route across Europe and carried a Syrian passport.

President Barack Obama called on world leaders meeting in Turkey Monday to “welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.” And while Baker and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, said they don’t want more Syrians, a State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said refugee status, once granted, may make it impossible for states to reject them, according to ABC News.

Massachusetts has already begun ramping up acceptance of people fleeing Syria. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 85 refugees from the country settled in the state, a more than 20-fold increase from the four who arrived in fiscal 2014, according to the Office for Refugees and Immigrants.  Eight were relocated to Massachusetts in 2013 and one in 2012.

“The state has a reputation for accepting and welcoming refugees and immigrants,” said Mary Truong, who heads the office. She suggested there’s been no change in plan, either.

“The governor has already talked about welcoming Syrian refugees and other immigrants,” Truong said at an annual State House luncheon hosted by the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition. She spoke after Baker made his remarks to a throng of reporters Monday morning.

“I would say ‘no’ as of right now,” Baker said about receiving more people from the nation torn by a two-year-old civil war. He and other governors say they want to make sure any new refugees are fully vetted before they are brought to their states for resettlement. “I’m not interested in accepting refugees from Syria. I would need to know a lot more than I know now before I agree to do anything.”

The question was posed to the governor days after the Islamic State took credit for the slaughter at restaurants, bars and outside a soccer stadium in Paris late Friday. The horrific attacks with automatic weapons and explosives prompted France to bomb Raqqa, Syria, where the terror group has a headquarters and reportedly hatched the Paris plot, according to intelligence officials in Iraq.  

In Turkey on Monday, Obama dismissed calls to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into America or other nations. More than 4 million people have fled the country in the past few years, including hundreds of thousands that have made their way to Europe.

“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said during a press briefing in Antalya, Turkey, following a summit meeting with leaders from the world’s largest economies. “That’s why, even as we accept more refugees including Syrians we do so only after subjecting them to rigorous screening and security checks.”

“We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves that’s what they’re fleeing,” Obama said.

Obama’s point was echoed in Boston by Amira Elamri, a Syrian refugee who also spoke at the State House event. Elamri, a teacher who fled from Syria with her husband and two children, resettled in Massachusetts in March 2014. Originally from Tunisia, Elamri said she saw the build-up in terrorism in Syria, starting in 2011, which forced her and her family to abandon their “dream house” and move to a Damascus apartment.

“By 2014, we lost all hope and decided we had no choice but to leave,” Elamri said. “Syrians as an example are mostly refugees; they are not all ISIS,” she said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

“They left their properties, worth millions, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get here. Syria is the land of civilization, Christianity and Islam at the same time,” she said. “No one ever wanted to leave but unfortunately our children’s safety and future is a priority.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat, tacitly criticized Baker, with whom he has had a relatively friendly relationship, in a statement issued later Monday.

“As a city and as a country it is not our custom to turn our backs on people who are in need and who are innocent,” Walsh said. “Should we be told that Boston is accepting refugees, we will work with our partners at the federal, state and local levels to ensure the safety of Boston residents.”

Whether governors can legally turn away Syrian refugees may hinge on how the Refugee Act of 1980 in interpreted. The law appears to give the president the authority to admit a certain number of refugees during an “unforeseen emergency” and that doing so would be “justified by grave humanitarian concerns.”

Under an Obama administration policy shift announced in September, 10,000 Syrian refugees will be taken in by the U.S. in 2016, up from fewer than 2,000 in 2015. Overall, his plan calls for increasing the number of foreign refugees accepted into the U.S. to 100,000 by 2017 from 70,000 in 2015.

Obama may also face resistance in Congress. Some Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate said they would try to force a suspension of the nation’s refugee resettlement program at least until the effectiveness of screening of new entrants is verified, the Associated Press reported.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.