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Can Governors Block Syrian Refugees? Probably Not

At least 31 governors worry about Syrian refugee resettlement into their state. The White House says such decisions are a federal matter. Who's right?
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In the wake of deadly terror attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people, more than half of America's governors are now expressing some degree of opposition to the Obama administration’s plans to relocate thousands of Syrian refugees to their states.

But despite the hue and cry of at least 31 governors who are either opposing, refusing, or suspending the resettlement of Syrian refugees into their state — either permanently or until after a security review — the Obama administration has said it views such decisions as a federal matter.

“This is a federal program carried out under authority of federal law…and refugees arriving in the U.S. are protected by constitution and federal law,” a State Department official told reporters on Tuesday. The refugees “are required to apply for legal status within year” and are “free to move anywhere in the country.”

And legal precedent might be on the administration’s side, legal experts say.

“I think the chance that the governors’ position will be legally sustained will be extremely low," said Harold Koh, a former dean of the Yale Law School and a former legal adviser to the State Department under the Obama administration.

Further, of the 31 states now attempting to block Syrian refugees, all but five have previously accepted them.

Related: How America's screening of Syrian refugees works

Still, the potential flood of Syrian refugees to the U.S. worries lawmakers like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who has vowed “We are working on measures to ensure ... that Texans will be kept safe from those refugees.”

So far, none of the terrorists identified in the Paris attack have been Syrian refugees.

Since the federal law is so clear, why is there so much debate? Here are some basics on the showdown:.

The Obama administration’s take

Earlier this year the Obama administration announced that it will accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year as countries in Europe continue to cope with the surge of thousands of people fleeing conflict in African and Middle Eastern nations. The U.S. estimates it has accepted at least 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict four years ago.

Related: U.S. Willing to Accept 10,000 Syrian Refugees Next Year

President Obama, speaking at the conclusion of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey on Monday, made the case that “slamming the doors in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.”

Related: Obama on Paris Attacks: 'ISIS Is the Face of Evil'

But as the chorus of American governors’ pushing back against the president’s policy has increased, Obama’s appeal to moral and patriotic sentiment were underscored by senior administration officials who stressed on the Hill and to media that the White House is in the right when it comes to resettling Syrian refugees.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. has a “robust” vetting process for those seeking entry to the U.S. including rigorous interviews and comparing information from a cross section of intelligence agencies.

"Certainly, there are challenges to that process because of the situation in Syria," Lynch said. "But I would note, however, that we do have the benefit of having that significant and robust screening process in place, a process that Europe has not been able to set up, which renders them more vulnerable."

Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC's Lester Holt on Tuesday that Americans shouldn't rush to judgment on Syrian refugees.

Related: John Kerry: Don't Rush to Judgment on Syria Refugees Resettling in the U.S.

It is a message that was echoed during a White House call with the nation’s governors on Tuesday evening.

"The call lasted almost 90 minutes, including an extensive question and answer session among the governors and Administration officials," The White House said in a statement. "The officials briefed the governors on the rigorous screening and security vetting process that is required before a refugee is able to travel to the United States."

They added that "even as the United States accepts more refugees — including Syrians — we do so only after they undergo the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any category of traveler to the United States."

And during a briefing call with reporters earlier in the day, a State Department official stressed that when it comes to the refugee relocation program "states have an important consultative role, but it is administered by federal government.” The official also noted "this is a program very much dependent on support of local communities," and spoke at some length at how constructive it is for local communities and officials to welcome refugees and work collaboratively.

The governors’ take

More than half of the nation’s governors and a cadre of other lawmakers have voiced some degree of opposition to the Obama administration’s plan to relocate thousands of refugees to their state.

Texas Gov. Abbott summed up many of their fears when he wrote in a letter to the president, "A Syrian 'refugee' appears to have been part of the Paris terror attack," likely referring to the Syrian passport that was found near the body of one of the suicide bombers near the Stade de France, the national sports stadium.

Related: More Governors Seek to Ban Syrian Refugees After Paris Massacre

Ohio Governor John Kasich encouraged the president to stop accepting refugees until "the rigor and depth of background checks are improved."

"I respectfully request that the federal government take no further action in resettling Syrian refugees in Ohio," the letter also said.

Related: House Speaker Ryan: 'Pause" Needed in Resettling Syrian Refugees

Opponents of the refugee program are also asking congressional leaders to strip funding for aid to refugees from a government spending bill that must pass before December 11.

On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he believes there needs to be a "pause" in Syrian refugees coming to the United States. The House Republican Leadership will move to set up a task force on counterterrorism and homeland security tasked with figuring out the best way for the U.S. to address the Syrian refugee crisis both in the short and long term.

Ryan said it is his hope that some type of bipartisan legislation hits the House floor by the end of the week. He acknowledged a sense of urgency for the legislation so it would not bump up against the government funding bill due December 11th.

"This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry so we think the prudent, responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population," Ryan said during a press conference Tuesday morning following a closed door House GOP conference meeting.

Any legislation that seeks to limit the ability of the U.S. to welcome refugees fleeing Syria will likely be opposed by the White House.

So who’s right?

As a matter of law, the White House is correct that it has the power to decide refugee admittance without governors. The Supreme Court reiterated that rule in 2012, in an immigration case that had the support of six justices, including Chief Justice Roberts.

As a matter of policy, it's an open question whether the federal government should change or end programs admitting refugees from Syria or elsewhere. Many governors are arguing that even if refugee programs can be positive, the risks now appear too high and the U.S. should err on the side of less migration if it could reduce the risk of terror even a tiny amount.

That may be a reasonable call to many Americans — but it's a call for one national government, not 50 individual states.