Gov. Nathan Deal wants to keep out Syrian refugees until security procedures for asylum seekers are reviewed by Congress.
Nathan Deal
Nathan Deal

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal today joined a swelling number of U.S. state leaders pledging to resist federal efforts to resettle Syrian refugees within their borders following attacks that left 129 people dead in Paris Friday.  

One of the men who perpetrated a spate of bombings and shootings across the French capital purportedly used a Syrian passport to enter Europe through Greece as a political refugee. 

That fact reveals flaws in the screening process that aren’t limited to European authorities, Mr. Deal wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama today. The governor and his counterparts from 22 other states so far worry that potential terrorists could use the asylum process to infiltrate the U.S. 

“Top security officials recently confirmed, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, that this fear is applicable to the United States’ refugee screening process due to ‘gaps’ in available intelligence data,” Mr. Deal wrote in the letter requesting the State Department halt all entries for Syrian refugees until Congress can review Homeland Security’s admission procedures. 

Mr. Deal also called on the federal government to “confirm the backgrounds of the 59 Syrian refugees recently resettled [in Georgia] to ensure they do not pose a security threat to our citizens.” 

Mr. Obama earlier this year directed the State Department to boost the number of Syrian refugees allowed U.S. access by 10,000, an order now being complicated by the growing chorus of governors resolved to keep them out. 

Administration officials say rigorous screening processes are already in place to weed out threats and that most Syrian refugees go through a process that takes years to complete, but Mr. Deal cited statements by FBI officials that shed light on the challenges of relying on databases. 

“FBI director James Comey explained the practical effect of the gaps in the screening process when he noted, ‘We can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing to show up because we have no record of them,’” reads the governor’s letter to the president. 

Speaking at the G20 summit in Turkey, Mr. Obama said the attacks on France and last month’s bombing in Ankara, Turkey, that killed 100 people were “attacks on the entire civilized world.”

The president also slammed calls by Republican presidential candidates and governors to shut out Syrians, urging them to remember that those most affected by Islamic State are the Syrians fleeing the violence at home. 

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has in the past been at odds with the state legislature on immigration policy, also called for renewed safety measures at a briefing today at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

“We’re going to have to redouble our efforts of vetting the individuals that come into the United States of America in a way that we would have not seen before. The United States government is responsible for that vetting process and I think this needs to be reviewed and redoubled. We cannot proceed with status quo,” Mr. Reed said. 

But the mayor’s office clarified for Global Atlanta that Mr. Reed did not agree with the governor’s proposed moratorium on allowing Syrian refugees into the state. 

J.D. McCrary, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Atlanta office, called the governor’s stance “an unfortunate response that really punishes the victims of the situation in the first place. The Syrians that are welcomed into the United States have been thoroughly vetted and gone through a security process that has been well established.”

Refugees are put through an intensive process requiring extensive documentation, including biometric data. 

“It is virtually possible for someone with any type of infraction in their background to make it through the refugee process here,” Mr. McCrary said, noting that most refugees come with families after having languished in camps in Turkey and Jordan for years. Many of the families are split up during the process. 

As for those who could slip through the databases because they haven’t committed crimes yet, Mr. McCrary pointed to interviews where trained U.S. interrogators require asylum seekers to establish that they’ve been persecuted for faith, nationality or political leanings. He added that those lacking sufficient documentation to prove their identities and persecution have their requests thrown out. 

In the 35 years of the program, including a decade of resettling refugees from war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, none of the 2 million refugees in the U.S. has even been suspected of terrorism, he said. IRC’s Atlanta office has resettled about 10 Syrians of the nearly 60 who have landed here. 

Citing the rigor of the initial admission process, Mr. McCrary said he didn’t think the federal government would grant Mr. Deal’s request to investigate Syrian families already here in Georgia, who Mr. McCrary says are concerned about the same things as other immigrants: adapting to a new culture and language, finding a job and helping their children succeed. 

Some experts say states have no authority over immigration policy, but state agencies do administer federal funds provided for resettlement expenses.

Read the governor’s executive order here, and see his statement and full letter to the president here.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...