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Ayotte: Obama should rethink allowing Syrian refugees


Gov. Maggie Hassan said the federal government should “halt acceptance” of Syrian refugees until U.S. authorities can assure the vetting process keeps Americans safe.

The governor’s position is a harder line on the issue than a statement from her office Monday morning, reflecting a growing concern among New Hampshire and U.S. elected leaders after the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night.

A dozen governors have now said they will block or halt resettlement of refugees from war-torn Syria, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is based.

A Hassan spokesman Monday morning said the governor “has always made clear that we must ensure robust refugee screening to protect American citizens, and believes that we must know more of the facts about those who carried out the Paris terrorist attacks and have strong assurances of safety from our intelligence officials before we admit refugees from Syria into the United States.”

National security concerns continue to consume the political bandwidth. U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., said the U.S. should halt refugees from Syria. He cited reports that one of the attackers in Paris had entered France under refugee status.

“We can’t take the risk of even one potential threat entering our country, not after the carnage of Paris,” Guinta said in a statement.

Guinta, in a phone interview, said he is also calling on Hassan to firmly declare that New Hampshire will not accept any Syrian refugees.

There are not any recent cases of Syrian refugees resettling in New Hampshire, according to the governor’s office, which also noted the federal government’s exclusive legal authority over the process, such that a governor cannot block resettlement.

Hassan is calling on the federal government to work closely with emergency management and safety officials at the state level to ensure local concerns are addressed before resuming any resettlement plans.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, is calling on President Obama to rethink his decision to allow additional Syrian refugees into the U.S., following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Ayotte said Americans must have a 100 percent guarantee that refugees do not have any ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That thorough vetting process aside, Ayotte noted in a phone interview with the Union Leader that there are questions about the screening process, given the challenges and the number of people fleeing terror in Syria.

“We need to make sure we are in a position to protect our homeland,” Ayotte said. She said the U.S. must work with allies, and others in the Middle East, to deny ISIS a safe haven anywhere.

Ayotte said Obama needs to rethink his decision to admit another 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S.

Obama, in September, directed his team to prepare to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year. By the end of September, America was on track to admit about 1,500 Syrian refugees, according to the White House.

Ayotte said the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the "barbaric nature of the killings," should alarm everyone. The chilling aspect of the attacks, above and beyond the coordination in multiple attacks, is "how few people it took ISIS to kill so many people in Paris and to cause so much terror," she said.

“The United States is at war with ISIS,” Ayotte said. “We should not be waiting for another 9/11.”

Guinta is a co-sponsor of a bill that would direct Congress to block any refugee resettlement plan. The legislation is targeted, in part, to the President's decision to prepare for the additional 10,000 Syrian refugees. Guinta spoke of the need to balance humanitarian response with protecting Americans. The refugee resettlement process is an 18- to 24- month process, but some of the review comes after refugees actually arrive in the U.S., he said.

"We need to put the safety and security of the U.S. first," he said.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-NH, called for expanded screening for any Syrian refugees.

"I am fiercely protective of our national security and believe we must be tough and smart in pursuing policies that protect Americans both at home and abroad," she said in a statement. "America stands with our French allies as they bring the perpetrators to justice. As we work with our allies to defeat ISIS without endangering American lives in another civil war, we must maintain and expand rigorous screening and security checks for any Syrian refugee fleeing terrorism by seeking to enter our country.”

The cities of Manchester, Nashua, Concord and Laconia are home to the biggest refugee resettlement populations in New Hampshire.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, citing the federal government hand in the process, said that Manchester leaders do not have the ability to accept or not accept refugees. "the biggest question that needs to be asked: Are these refugees being vetted the same that came from Somalia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo (or other countries)?"

Eva Castillo, with New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees, said she understands concerns run high, but she said the vetting process is good and thorough. It is unlikely any refugee would be admitted to the U.S. until 2016, because it usually takes a year to review records and run security checks, she said. In addition, she said, resettlement coordinators seek to place refugees where they have established communities, and there is no Syrian community base in New Hampshire.

The lack of information and complexity with the process is frustrating for some state leaders, including Gatsas.

State Rep. Frank Edelblut, a Wilton Republican running for governor, said he was surprised Monday at how difficult it was to try to understand how many refugees are currently in New Hampshire. He believes refugees from Syria, and other countries, should be put on hold until the process is reviewed to ensure it is effective. The tragedy in France shows that the process is not fail-safe, he said.

"Let's build some transparency in this process," Edelblut said.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, said the Paris attacks show the need for the U.S. to maintain an extensive vetting process.

"Unlike many European countries that have overwhelmed borders and minimal screening, refugees seeking entry into the United States undergo rigorous processing that can take as long as two years," Shaheen said. "The United States has always given sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and New Hampshire has always done its part ot help. We must ensure that our treatment of refugees continues to adhere to principles as a nation. These attacks by ISIS were an assault on Western values and should serve to strengthen the resolve of the United States and our allies to defeat this heinous terrorist organization."

dtuohy@unionleader.com

(This post was updated at 5 p.m. with additional comments from New Hampshire leaders.)
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