By Scott Malone
(Reuters) - More than a dozen state governors refused on Monday to accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks, part of a mounting Republican backlash against the Obama administration's plan to accept thousands more immigrants from the war-torn country.
Leading Republican presidential candidates called on President Barack Obama to suspend the plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year and some Republican lawmakers began moves in Congress to try to defund the policy.
The State Department said the administration would stand by its plan, reiterating that the refugees would be subject to stringent security checks, and Obama said that the terrorism problem should not be equated with the refugee crisis.
But Republican leaders said it was too risky to allow a further influx of refugees after Friday's attacks by the Syria-based Islamic State group that killed 129 people.
The Republican states rejecting further Syrian refugee settlements were South Carolina, Oklahoma, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia and Illinois. The governors of Alabama and Michigan had said on Sunday they would no longer help settle Syrian refugees. One Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, joined them in rejecting Syrian refugees.
Experts in immigration law said the governors likely had no legal standing to block the federal government from settling refugees admitted into the country, but noted that they could obstruct the plans by cutting funding to programs and creating an atmosphere of hostility.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, for instance, said he had instructed law enforcement officials to monitor one Syrian refugee recently resettled into his state.
A Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers showed that its holder passed through Greece in October, raising concern that the attackers had entered Europe amid the wave of refugees fleeing that country's four-year civil war.
"Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees - any one of whom could be connected to terrorism - being resettled in Texas," Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in an open letter to Obama on Monday. "Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity."
Refugee advocates argued that the governors and other Republicans are targeting those who are overwhelmingly victims rather than perpetrators of extremist violence.
"These are victims of the same terror that we're so horrified by," said Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy at Jewish nonprofit refugee service HIAS. "The impact on people is going to be tragic and the impact on our reputation as a global humanitarian leader is also going to be tragic."
LEGAL AUTHORITY UNCLEAR
Republican concerns were to some extent echoed in Canada, where some provincial and municipal leaders said a plan by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year does not allow for enough security checks.
The United States admitted 1,682 Syrian refugees in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a sharp jump from the 105 admitted a year earlier, while Europe is struggling with an influx of hundreds of thousands. Texas, California and Michigan accepted the largest number of people fleeing the war.
Secretary of State John Kerry in September said the United States would increase the number of refugees it takes in from all nations by 15,000 per year over the next two years, bringing the total to 100,000 a year by 2017.
"The federal government has the power over immigration. If they admit Syrian refugees, they're here," said Deborah Anker, a professor of law at Harvard Law School who specializes in immigration issues. "People aren't going to the (state) border. The federal government is going to bring them in."
Florida Governor Rick Scott said it was unclear if a governor had the right to block refugees from entering a state. Instead, he sent a letter to Congressional Republicans asking for their help in blocking Syrian refugees from being resettled in his state.
"We are asking the U.S. Congress to take immediate and aggressive action to prevent President Obama and his administration from using any federal tax dollars to fund the relocation ... without an extensive evaluation of the risk these individuals may pose to our national security," Scott wrote.
Republican lawmaker Brian Babin, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, circulated a letter to the Republican House of Representatives leadership requesting that Obama's plan be defunded as part of an upcoming spending bill. By Monday, 14 members of the House, all Republicans, had signed the letter.
Republican presidential candidates vowed on Monday to take a tougher approach toward Islamic State, with Donald Trump saying he would consider closing some mosques and Ben Carson saying that Congress should cut funding for all programs that bring people fleeing violence in Syria
On the Democratic side, the governors of Pennsylvania and Washington State said they will continue working with the federal government to admit Syrian refugees.
"Washington will continue to be a state that welcomes those seeking refuge from persecution, regardless of where they come from or the religion they practice," said Washington Governor Jay Inslee, in a statement.
Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, described his state, which has a large Arab-American population, as "welcoming" but said the risk associated with admitting Syrian refugees was too high.
The State Department denied that admitted refugees, who are all extensively screened before being allowed into the country, present any threat and said it would seek to alleviate the governors' concerns.
"We take their concerns seriously," spokesman Mark Toner said of the governors' statements. "We disagree that these people, individuals frankly many of them the most vulnerable (in the region), represent any kind of real threat."
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Serena Maria Daniels, Doina Chiacu, Jon Herskovitz, Letitia Stein, Eric Johnson, Ben Klayman and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Stuart Grudgings)