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Syrian refugees: Inslee says yes, Otter no

OLYMPIA – Washington will continue to accept refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday morning.

But Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said he will do everything he can to stop refugees from coming to his state until the federal government comes up with a better system to vet them.

Saying he believes the U.S. State Department has a “robust system” to evaluate refugees and decide where to place them, Inslee said Washington will not refuse placements.

“Washington will continue to be a state that welcomes those seeking refuge from persecution, regardless of where they come from or what religion they practice,” Inslee said in a statement that mentioned Republican Gov. Dan Evans’ efforts to welcome Southeast Asian refugees to the state in the 1970s.

Otter said he sent a letter to President Barack Obama saying he understood refugee resettlement is primarily under the control of the federal government, but that Congress and the administration should work with the states and review the process.

In the meantime, Otter said he would “use any legal means available to me to protect the citizens I serve.”

In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris attributed to the Islamic State group, governors in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi and Texas, and the state Assembly of Wisconsin, have announced plans to try to block Syrian refugees from coming to their state. Legal experts questioned, however, whether they had any authority to override the federal government on this issue.

Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said under the Refugee Act of 1980 governors cannot legally block refugees. Each state has a refugee coordinator, a post created as part of that law, she said. Funded by the federal government, the post coordinates resettlement efforts with agencies such as hers and directs federal funds for refugees.

Inslee was among governors taking a different stance, saying Washington would accept Syrian refugees if the federal government decides to send them to the state.

“I stand firmly with President Obama, who said this morning, ‘We do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism,’ ” he said.

Since 1975, Washington has received more than 130,000 refugees from more than 70 countries, according to Sarah Peterson, the state refugee coordinator. That included 2,921 in 2015, mostly from Iraq, Ukraine, Somalia, the Congo and Myanmar; 25 of them were from Syria. No estimates for the number of Syrian refugees that could be coming to Washington have been announced, she added.

Idaho, too, has a long history of welcoming refugees. Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, told Idaho Reports the state has resettled 35 refugees in the last six months, 20 of them children.

The Obama administration has pledged to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next 12 months. The State Department said the refugees would be spread nationwide, though many go on to places where they have family or cultural connections, such as Detroit, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

According to government statistics, the U.S. has taken about 2,150 Syrians since Oct. 1, 2011 – most in the last year.

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell in Boise and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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