Utah governor yet to decide on Syrian refugees, 31 peers say no

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FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2015, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Herbert is ordering a review of security checks for refugees coming to Utah on the heels of the last week's attacks in Paris. The Republican governor said in a statement Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, that he wants state and federal authorities to reevaluate how they screen refugees. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Herbert is ordering a review of security checks for refugees coming to Utah on the heels of the attacks in Paris. (Associated Press)

Utah currently is not one of the 31 states refusing Syrian refugees in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, but it seems Gov. Gary Herbert is still collecting his thoughts.

Those thoughts led to his order of an immediate reevaluation of security checks on refugees used by the FBI, the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security on Nov. 16.

A vote by the Utah Republican House caucus to take a formal position urging the governor to reverse course received 32 votes — short of the 38 votes needed for a caucus position. Several lawmakers have said they will gather signatures on a letter to Herbert and discuss refugee screening at a December hearing.

So far, governors of 31 states have cited security concerns as the reason they will try to block Syrian refugees. These states include Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Michigan, Texas and Massachusetts and others.

It is unclear whether a governor has any say on where refugees are resettled. In fact, Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration, told the Associated Press that under the Refugee Act of 1980, governors cannot legally block refugees from settling inside their communities.

“Utahns are well known for our compassion for those who are fleeing the violence in their homeland,” Herbert spokesman Jon Cox said in a recent statement. “We will work to do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety.”

Herbert, chairman of the National Governors Association, has asked the Utah Department of Public Safety to review security checks used by the federal refugee-resettlement program and wants to consult with the state’s congressional delegation.

After the review, Cox promised that “the governor will diligently assess these security protocols, and if warranted, implement a change in state policy.”

“The highest duty of a governor is to protect public safety,” Cox said.

This announcement came after authorities revealed that at least one of the suspects believed to be involved in the Paris terrorist attacks entered Europe among the current wave of Syrian refugees, giving validity to the concern that terrorists might use the refugee status as cover to sneak across international borders.

Only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been accepted into the United States since 2011, but the Obama administration announced in September that 10,000 Syrians will be allowed entry next year.

The move by mostly Republican governors to reject Syrian refugees is one President Barack Obama spoke against during a news conference in Turkey on Nov. 16, where he attended the Group of 20 summit.

The Democratic president said it was 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.”

More than 250,000 people have died since the violence broke out in Syria in 2011, and at least 11 million people in the country of 22 million have fled their homes. Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population, according to the United Nations.

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