Virginia lawmakers promise to bar Syrian refugees

Even as Gov. Terry McAuliffe said his administration would not stand in the way of settling refugees from Syria in Virginia, Republicans promised they would pass legislation calling for a two-year moratorium on resettlement.

In a statement issued early Tuesday, Delegates Tim Hugo, Greg Habeeb, Manoli Loupassi and Todd Gilbert expressed reservations about the vetting process for Syrians seeking to come to this country, and urged McAuliffe to join with the governors of two dozen other states to keep the refugees out.

"Our first and foremost responsibility is to the citizens of Virginia," Habeeb (R-Salem) wrote on Twitter. He added that McAuliffe should "immediately cut off all funding currently being used to resettle Syrian refugees in Virginia."

In an interview on WMAL radio, Hugo (R-Centreville), chairman of the House Republican Caucus, said he thinks resettlement would put Virginia residents at risk and he prefers a policy of "rather be safe than sorry."

In a Facebook post, Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), wrote: "We will introduce legislation in the 2016 General Assembly session aimed at prohibiting state agencies from assisting in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Virginia or using taxpayer dollars to do so."

The threat of legislation comes on the heels of a poll released Tuesday from the University of Mary Washington's Center for Leadership and Media Studies conducted just before the terrorist attack in Paris on Friday. Sixty-one percent of Virginians believed "allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. would increase the risk of a future terrorist attack on U.S. soil."

In a discussion accompanying the poll, Prof. Stephen Farnsworth, the center's director, said: “There was not much support for President Obama’s Syrian refugee policies before the terrorists struck in Paris last Friday night, and I suspect the limited support found in our survey has evaporated over the weekend.”

Farnsworth added: “Despite months of horrific images in the media of refugees struggling to escape a region filled with violence, President Obama has made little headway, at least in Virginia, in building support for hosting Syrians refugees here.”

On Monday, Virginia Department of Social Services spokeswoman Necole Simmonds told AMI Newswire that in fiscal year 2015, "25 Syrian refugees were resettled into the Commonwealth of Virginia. These 25 refugees represent one percent of the 2,338 total number of refugees resettled in Virginia in 2015."

Simmonds said no Syrian refugees had been resettled in Virginia since the beginning of the 2016 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Some question whether states have the right to bar refugee resettlement within their borders. Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, told AMI Newswire that such bans are "unconstitutional and difficult to understand given the fact that Paris terrorists were Belgian and French nationals."

According to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Refugee Act of 1980 requires that the agency, "to the maximum extent possible, take into account recommendations of the State." Individual states accepting refugees are required to present plans covering language training, employment assistance, and health screenings.