McDonough told governors that the administration has no plans to change current practice.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Governors Press White House for Refugee Information

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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In a call with senior Obama administration officials Tuesday evening, several governors demanded they be given access to information about Syrian refugees about to be resettled by the federal government in their states. Top White House officials refused.

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Over a dozen governors from both parties joined the conference call, which was initiated by the White House after 27 governors vowed not to cooperate with further resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. The outrage among governors came after European officials revealed that one of the Paris attackers may have entered Europe in October through the refugee process using a fake Syrian passport. (The details of the attacker’s travels are still murky.)

The administration officials on the call included White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, State Department official Simon Henshaw, FBI official John Giacalone, and the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center John Mulligan.

On the call several Republican governors and two Democrats -- New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and California’s Jerry Brown -- repeatedly pressed administration officials to share more information about Syrian refugees entering the United States. The governors wanted notifications whenever refugees were resettled in their states, as well as access to classified information collected when the refugees were vetted.

“There was a real sense of frustration from all the governors that there is just a complete lack of transparency and communication coming from the federal government,” said one GOP state official who was on the call.

The administration officials, led by McDonough, assured the governors that the vetting process was thorough and that the risks of admitting Syrian refugees could be properly managed. He added that the federal government saw no reason to alter the current method of processing refugees.

Florida governor Rick Scott asked McDonough point blank if states could opt out of accepting refugees from Syria. McDonough said no, the GOP state official said.

In a readout of the call Tuesday night, the White House said that several governors “expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to better understand the process and have their issues addressed.” The White House noted that “others encouraged further communication” from the administration about the resettlement of refugees. 

Hassan, one of two Democrats to challenge the administration on the call, had already come out in favor of halting the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States. She expressed anger that state officials aren’t notified when Syrian refugees are resettled in their territory.

Brown said he favored continuing to admit Syrian refugees but wanted the federal government to hand over information that would allow states to keep track of them, the GOP state official said.

McDonough responded to Brown that there was currently no process in place to give states such information and the administration saw no reason to change the status quo. The nongovernmental organizations that help resettle the refugees would have such information.

Brown countered by noting that state law enforcement agencies have active investigations into suspected radicals and that information about incoming Syrian refugees could help maintain their awareness about potential radicalization. He suggested the U.S. had to adjust the way it operates in light of the Paris attacks.

McDonough reiterated his confidence in the current process. While promising to consider what Brown and other senators had said, he emphasized that the administration had no plans to increase information sharing on refugees with states as of now.

Top GOP senators echoed the concerns of governors Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr joined House Speaker Paul Ryan’s call for a “pause” in the flow of Syrian refugees, which is intended to include 10,000 people by 2016. McConnell said “the ability to vet people coming from that part of the world is really quite limited.”

Democratic senators are split on the issue. Senators Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday there may be a need for a pause in accepting Syrian refugees but they both wanted to hear more from the administration about the issue. Sen. Dick Durbin said that refugees aren’t the primary source of concern. He pointed to the millions of foreign visitors who enter America each year.

“Background checks need to be redoubled in terms of refugees but if we’re talking about threats to the United States, let’s put this in perspective,” he said. “Let us not just single out the refugees as the potential source of danger in the United States.”

The White House is trying hard to engage governors and lawmakers. Top administration officials held several briefings about the issue Tuesday on Capitol Hill. But if they don’t agree to share more with state and local politicians, the opposition to accepting Syrian refugees could quickly gain ground.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net