Governor Who Started Stampede Against Refugees Says He Only Wants Answers

Nov 20, 2015
Originally published on November 20, 2015 11:45 am

Michigan's Rick Snyder was the first governor to urge a pause in admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. He triggered a national debate about refugee resettlement, and insists now that he only wants answers. The Republican has described himself as "the most pro-immigration governor in the country," but he argues the caution he wants the U.S. to show doesn't conflict with the compassion thinks should be shown to refugees.

More than two dozen governors have followed in Snyder's lead in calling to exclude Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states in the wake of last week's attack in Paris. But many have used much tougher rhetoric than his, linking the Syria-based Islamic State with terrorists.

A Tennessee legislative leader suggested refugees already in his state should be rounded up and expelled. Some Republican presidential candidates have suggested spoke of admitting only Christians, not Muslims. Democrats such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee accused his fellow (largely Republican) governors of giving into "fear."

In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Governor Snyder suggested he didn't mean to create a partisan issue. He insisted he's still willing to accept more Syrians in Michigan and said he merely wants a little reassurance that the federal screening process for refugees is sound. He said a call from the president assuring him of the process would be "helpful."

According to Snyder's office, he did join a call with the White House earlier this week that included senior staff, FBI, State, Homeland Security and counterterrorism officials but the governor still wants a detailed response to a letter he sent to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry outlining his concerns. Snyder told NPR he wants those officials to make the review and to "please respond to my letter that you're confident that we have the appropriate response in place."


Interview Highlights

On 'pausing' immigration from Syrian refugees

I'm very much in favor of immigration. If you look at what's happened in our country, what made our country great was immigration. And in particular, you have people around the world that their lives have been shattered ... We've always been good about accepting people, having come to our country to rebuild their lives. So, in a general sense I've been very much in favor of being proactive with Middle Eastern refugees, along with refugees across the world.

The issue that I said we should hit the pause button for is, one, these horrific terrorist events that have sort of coincided. We have Paris, we have Lebanon, we have the Egyptian airline bombing. Again, I have not criticized the federal system at all. What I said was, it'd be great if we had more transparency and awareness of the review processes. ... When you have terrible events like these in other countries, isn't it appropriate that you just pause to make sure that you do an appropriate review and look at what lessons-learned you can see from these other events to see if processes should be improved and enhanced in some fashion?

On what it would take to resume Syrian immigration

If we get to the point where we can say that review has taken place and people are confident that we have a system to let in people who have had their lives shattered, and at the same time can keep out the bad guys, hopefully we can start the process again of accepting refugees. Hopefully they're coming here for the American dream in a positive way. ...

I really want [the federal government] to come back and say, we have now made a review of these at least three situations and believe their current system is acceptable or not, or that they're making some modifications. I don't think that's unreasonable. I view that as good old-fashioned common sense, being careful, and at the same time trying to be proactive.

On other governors following his call

Each governor, each public official is going to take their own position. The way I viewed it as is, I think I've been pretty much in favor of making sure people recognized immigration. ... I just want to make sure we're doing the appropriate balancing between what we stand for as Americans ... and also at the same time assuring national security by keeping the few really bad people out of our country.

On how other politicians have reacted

With respect to my statements and my position, I still contend it's a common-sense process that we should be undertaking. I think it's unfortunate that other people, whether on the right or left, whether you're for immigration or against it, could be politicizing this issue. ... The position I took, I believe, was appropriate.

On whether a call from President Obama assuring him about the refugee review process is enough

That would be helpful ... I would have to see what's going on in the actual conversation but I put that out on the table to begin with. I actually wrote a letter, I think it was on Sunday or Monday, to Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Johnson basically asking for that. Asking that the review be made and please respond to my letter that you're confident that we have the appropriate response in place. So I'm hopefully going to get a response to the letter I sent them.

On some calling for a religious test for refugees

This shouldn't be about politics. We have the Bill of Rights — people have freedom of religion, and shouldn't we have processes. We're here to help people that have shattered lives. Have an immigration system that works, have them come to our country in a thoughtful way, and not at the expense of national security — strike that right balance.

On what level of concern says about GOP

I'm not going to speak for the party, but I'm a proud Republican. But as a practical matter, I think the position I'm taking is a very thoughtful one, and a thoughtful common sense one. And I would hope as this continues to develop, that politics should not be the driving force here — it should be what's in the best interests of our country to stand for the spirit of our country.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

So that is the debate in Europe. Next we'll hear from the governor, who did a lot to trigger debate in the United States.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Michigan's Rick Snyder was the first governor to call for a pause in admitting Syrian refugees to the United States, and in particular, to his state. Dozens of governors have since followed in different ways.

MONTAGNE: Republican presidential candidates offered their views. Some said they'd like to favor Christian refugees over Muslims. New Jersey's Chris Christie said he wouldn't admit a 3-year-old orphan because he doesn't trust President Obama's screening.

INSKEEP: On this program, the Democratic governor of Washington state responded. He said, refusing refugees would betray the words on the Statue of Liberty. Yet, when we reached the Republican governor who spoke out first, Rick Snyder insisted he never wanted a partisan fight.

RICK SNYDER: Politics should not be the driving force here. It should be what's in the best interest of our country, just stand for the spirit of our country, what the Statue of Liberty says, and at the same time, practice national security in a very thoughtful and effective way.

INSKEEP: Snyder is in an unusual situation. He is Republican, and many leaders in his party have made incendiary remarks about illegal immigrants and Muslims. Yet, Snyder told us he does not speak for his party. He says he is pro-immigrant. His state is a notable Arab-American population. And before the Paris attacks, Snyder was actually proposing that Michigan accept more refugees. In our talk, you hear a governor raising concerns about Syrian refugees while trying not to go too far.

SNYDER: We've always been good about having people come to our country to rebuild their lives. So in a general sense, I've been very much in favor of refugees across the world. The issue that I said we should hit the pause button for is these horrific terrorist events that have sort of coincided. We have Paris in particular, but also the suicide bombings in Lebanon, you know, 43 people died there, and then the Egyptian airline bombing. I think it would be great if we had more transparency and awareness of the review processes to let in people coming here for the American dream in a positive way.

INSKEEP: What concerns you, if anything, about the security check that's currently in place that takes almost two years in many cases, that involve the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies?

SNYDER: Well, I wouldn't single out any specific problem I have with it. But when you have these events, doesn't it make sense you should pause and simply say, let's continue looking at these events? And I really want the federal government to come back and say, you know, we have now made a review of these at least three situations and believe their current system is acceptable or not or that they're making some modifications. I don't think that's an unreasonable thing. I view that as pretty good old-fashioned common sense, you know, being careful and at the same time trying to be proactive.

INSKEEP: There are people who come to the United States on tourist visas. There are people who don't even need visas to enter the United States from Western Europe, which is the point of origin for some of the Paris attackers for example. Would you also pause the other ways that people can enter the United States?

SNYDER: Well, I wouldn't necessarily do that. But again, this is a particular case of this refugee process that there's a heightened degree of concern. I heard that from our citizens. And this is a case where I think there's a lot of concern in the general public. And actually, I believe this review process could give people more comfort that the right things were being done as opposed to just simply ignoring these terrible incidents around the world. Isn't it better to say we're being cognizant of it? We're recognizing they're things that need to be reviewed and considered and after that review and consideration, if they come out and say we believe they have the right process, then we can instill more confidence in our citizens to make it a more accepting process for refugees.

INSKEEP: I don't mean to palaver this point, but I'm still wondering why only focus on refugees when there's so many other ways, much quicker ways, that people can enter the United States?

SNYDER: Again, I hope they're making a regular review of all those questions. The one that stood out most quickly though was the refugee question about the process.

INSKEEP: So suppose President Obama picked up the phone and called you this evening and said, Governor, I heard about your concern, we looked into it and it turns out we do have a strong review process. It takes up to a couple of years and we think it's good. Would you be satisfied?

SNYDER: That would be helpful. I would have to say what's going on in the actual conversation. But I put that out on the table to begin with. I actually wrote a letter - I think it was on Monday - to Secretary of State Kerry, and Secretary of Homeland Security Johnson, basically asking for that, asking that the review be made and please respond to my letter, that you're confident we have the appropriate practices in place. So I'm hopefully going to get a response to the letter I sent them.

INSKEEP: It's easy to suspect that conservatives would not believe any reassurance that President Obama gave. Are you saying that that reassurance could be enough from this president?

SNYDER: Well again, I've - from the administration, I would hope this should not be a partisan issue as much as a good issue about national security and striking that balance between being an opening country. As I said, that's in the core DNA of who we are as Americans. And at the same time, striking the right balance with national security to keep terrorists out of our country.

INSKEEP: Governor Snyder, thanks very much.

SNYDER: It's great to be with you, Steve. Take care.

INSKEEP: Rick Snyder is the governor of Michigan. He called for a pause in accepting Syrian refugees. We invite you to stay with your public radio station throughout this day and on NPR's All Things Considered. We will have the latest on today's assault by gunmen on a hotel in Mali. Keeping you in touch with the world, it's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.