Utah House Republicans Divided on Syrian Refugee Issue

20151118 Syrian RefugeesSome Utah House Republicans don’t like GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s stand on Syrian refugees perhaps coming to the state, and they want a “pause” in the Obama administration’s refugee program.

But enough GOP representatives, meeting in an open caucus Wednesday, voted “no” on the pause idea – and declining to go against their party’s top officeholder – that the motion failed to get the required 38 votes to become an official caucus position.

So Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, and other “pause” advocates will circulate a letter among their colleagues asking federal officials to slow down on allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. until comprehensive vetting can take place.

And House Republicans who support that idea will sign up.

Newly-installed U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., all of the Utah GOP congressional delegation, and all of the Republican state governors (except Herbert) have come out against Syrian refugees coming into their states and the U.S. at present.

Oda, whose own mother was a Japanese-American internee during WWII, said the U.S. has never seen a refugee situation like today.

“We need a pause – a temporary halt – to Syrian refugees until we are ensured proper vetting” by federal officials “is taking place,” said Oda.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, House chair of the Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said next month his committee is conducting a hearing on how much Utah is spending on refugee resettlement and what kinds of Homeland Security precautions can be taken once any Syrian refugees come into Utah.

None has come in the summer/fall exodus from Syria reported so much in the news.

The latest concerns come after the ISIS terrorist attacks last week in Paris, and the confirmation that one of the dead terrorists came into France via Greece in the most recent influx of those fleeing the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s successes on the battlefield.

One after another, House Republicans stood to say that Utah is a welcoming place, and the state wants to help “genuine” refugees fleeing terror, hunger, and war.

“We want to bring refugees in under the right basis,” said Oda. “But our first obligation is to protect ourselves, our families, friends, and neighbors.”

Ray said perhaps 12 Syrians have been placed in Utah over recent years – none during the latest exodus.

Oda introduced Thomas Panuzio, a partner in the Salt Lake-based private security-consulting firm ThreatIdentity, Inc.

Panuzio said he had done work for the federal government, states, and private companies.

The question, said Panuzio, is what Utah state government can and should do when the Syrian refugees arrive here.

While a few diehard anti-federal caucus members said the states do have a role in immigration and refugee resettlement, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said it appears to him the state can’t stop the federal government from resettling Syrian refugees here.

There will be six layers of vetting, said Panuzio. But Utah state officials should start up their own, final, inspection of Syrian refugees, which would include reviewing what federal officials have done plus a face-to-face interview with the refugees once they get here.

Then, through an ongoing program, state officials and privately hired consultants, should befriend the refugees, help them settle into Utah life, find a job, and otherwise start to integrate into our society.

Ray said the state’s current refugee resettlement program helps resettle refugees in a social manner, but not in a law enforcement/background check process.

At the same time, said Panuzio, state officials would be looking for any attitudes, feelings or connections that could lead to problems – including radicalization like the French terrorists went through.

Several House members said once a refugee has been vetted by the federal government and resettled, they have the same civil rights and rights of expression, association and movement as any U.S. citizen.

Just because a refugee is assigned to California or Utah doesn’t mean they have to stay there – they can relocate as they wish.

Herbert has already been criticized by some inside and outside the state for not following the lead of local and national Republicans: And demanding a “pause” in Syrian refugees coming into the U.S.

While Herbert continues to have high favorability ratings among all Utahns, he has crossed swords with some in the Legislature – who may see this refugee issue as a chance to butt heads with him.

Herbert is being challenged in his 2016 re-election by fellow Republican Jonathan Johnson, who has called for Herbert to stop Syrian refugees coming into the state until Utahns are sure they won’t cause problems.

Herbert says state public safety officials will review federal Syrian refugee resettlement processes to make sure Utahns remain safe.