Gov. Larry Hogan asked the Obama administration Tuesday to halt any resettling in Maryland of refugees from the Syrian civil war until it is certain that they pose no threat to public safety.
Hogan issued his statement one day after he declined to join more than 20 Republican governors and at least one Democrat in taking steps to keep such refugees out of their states. He had said Monday he would wait and make a "reasoned and careful" decision.
The governor's statement Tuesday, couched as a request rather than a demand, was more measured in tone than those of many of his GOP peers, some of whom vowed to block any resettlement of refugees in their states.
"As governor of Maryland, the safety and security of Marylanders remains my first priority," Hogan said. "Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety."
Hogan, who is in Las Vegas this week for the Republican Governors Association conference, issued his statement as elected officials across Maryland and the nation weighed in on whether to welcome or rebuff thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle Eastern nation in the wake of the Paris attacks.
While governors can protest the resettlement of refugees in their states, they have little power to block such action. The courts have held that immigration falls under the authority of the federal government, and U.S. law gives the president broad powers to admit refugees.
Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark said the governor is aware of the limited powers that states have on refugee matters. He said Maryland has received 7,384 refugees between the middle of 2011 and June 30 this year, including 37 from Syria.
Clark said the Hogan administration had previously raised the issue of refugee resettlement with the Obama administration, though not in the context of the Syrians and fears of terrorist infiltration. In June, Ann Flagg of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, sent a letter to the State Department asking that the number of refugees resettled here be capped at the previous year's level of about 2,100.
"It's just a question of our capacity," Clark said.
He acknowledged the restrained nature of Hogan's statement compared with those of other governors. "I think the governor always aims to strike a measured tone on just about every issue," Clark said.
Clark said he was not sure what the federal government would have to show Hogan to reassure him that the immigrants could be safely resettled. But he said the governor is not convinced the federal government has adequate safeguards in place.
Melissa Deckman, a political scientist at Washington College in Chestertown, said Hogan's words were more balanced than those of other governors. The fact that Hogan did not join in the first rush of opposition on Monday "says he isn't running for president," she said.
"It's kind of a statement that straddles both sides," Deckman said.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said the statement represents a significant shift from former Gov. Martin O'Malley's welcoming approach to refugees toward the restrictive approach favored by Republican governors.
"It was certainly a more moderate tone, but the outcome is essentially the same," Kromer said.
Groups involved in refugee resettlement criticized Hogan's stance.
The ACLU of Maryland issued a statement saying it was "saddened" by Hogan's announcement.
"To shut the door in the face of those who are the most severely harmed by the very actions we so loudly condemn in Paris is to say that some lives — those of the Syrian refugees and their children — do not matter and are expendable," said Sirine Shebaya, the attorney directing the group's immigrant rights advocacy.
Bill O'Keefe, government affairs director of Catholic Relief Services, expressed disappointment in the governor's stand. "These are the most vetted refugees in the world and we continue to urge our government to do its fair share to welcome the most vulnerable," he said.
Democratic elected officials also criticized Hogan's statement.
"Preserving the safety of Maryland's residents and providing refuge for Syrians fleeing violence are not mutually exclusive; we can and must do both," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore.
Both of the announced Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated next year by Barbara A. Mikulski spoke out. Rep. Donna F. Edwards, whose district is composed of portions of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, said Hogan's position "is against the values we hold dear as Marylanders and as Americans." Rep. Chris Van Hollen, whose district includes parts of Montgomery, Carroll and Frederick counties, called it "shameful that Governor Hogan and others would seek to exploit people's justifiable safety concerns by further fueling their fears."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has identified increased immigration as one of the keys to growing Baltimore's population, said, "I hope that refugees from Syria will look to our city as a potential place to call home."
Meanwhile, Hogan was also taking flak from his right flank.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, decried Hogan's statement as too weak.
"The governor is leaving the door open on these refugees," he said. "My position is zero tolerance — not to permit them to come in under any circumstances."
As the number of governors seeking to restrain the flow of refugees passed 25 Tuesday, some Republicans were taking a much harder rhetorical line than Hogan.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order instructing his administration "to utilize all lawful means" to block Syrian refugees. Jindal, who dropped out of the GOP race for president Tuesday, also told state police to use "all lawful means to monitor and avert threats" posed by refugees already in the state.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom Hogan is backing for president, said on a radio show Monday that he wants to keep Syrian refugees out even if they are orphan children. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter vowed to "use any legal means available" to keep Syrians out. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said he opposes the resettlement of any refugees of any nationality in his state.
In Washington, Speaker Paul Ryan said the House GOP leadership is putting together a plan to address the Syrian refugee crisis. He said it would be prudent to "take a pause" in resettlement to make sure terrorists are not infiltrating the refugees.
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"Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion," the Wisconsin Republican said. "This is a moment when it's better to be safe than to be sorry."
Obama administration officials launched an outreach to Capitol Hill and held a conference call with governors Tuesday, trying to prevent a suspension of the decades-old resettlement program. The United States accepted more than 1,600 Syrian refugees last year, and President Barack Obama has vowed to take in at least 10,000 by Oct. 1.
Clark said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford was on the call, but did not elaborate.
Maryland experienced a surge in refugees in 2014, the year of an influx of children fleeing violence in Central America. During that crisis, the state accepted some of the highest numbers of refugees per capita of any state because of the large number of Salvadoran immigrants in Maryland.
At the time, O'Malley marshaled state and nonprofit resources to help resettle the refugees. That open-door policy is a theme he has continued in his run for the Democratic nomination for president, saying Monday that the nation should welcome 65,000 refugees fleeing the war in Syria.