White House Campaigns to Assure Public on Syrian Refugees

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a news conference following a working session at the Group of 20 leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, on November 16. Reuters/Umit Bektas

The White House has begun an effort to reassure the public that its refugee admission policy toward Syria won't jeopardize American safety.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough held a conference call with 34 state governors late Tuesday to address concerns about the security implications of refugee admission. According to a White House press release, the call lasted for 90 minutes and included questions from 13 governors.

At least one Republican governor, Rick Scott of Florida, said that it "didn't help."

"It made me even more concerned," Scott said this morning on Fox News. Scott was one of the first governors to release a statement declaring that his state would close its doors.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, hadn't wavered in his support of admitting refugees with proper vetting.

"Let's be very clear, no one's taking a raft from Turkey to get to the United States. We control this situation to a higher degree than any European country can at the current moment."

Connecticut has given the green light to refugees, but the governors' individual decisions might be more symbolic than effective.

Legal precedent doesn't back up the governors who expressly wrote to the president or released statements attempting to hold the line. That's the law under the Refugee Act of 1980, which gives the federal government broad discretion over who gets in and where to send them (they mostly partner with nonprofits and faith-based groups, not state and local officials).

Among the governors' concerns is information. Even Democrat Jerry Brown of California, who has said his state is open to accepting refugees, wants greater federal intelligence sharing to help California officials keep track of them.

In the climate that followed the Paris attacks, many governors seemed not to understand how refugee admission is handled in the United States, and the White House's statement suggested that the conference call primarily clarified what current policy is.

Because refugee admission is dictated by federal law, the GOP-led fight to close U.S. borders will have to be waged from Capitol Hill.

The House has drafted a bill to pause the nation's refugee program, which underwent extensive revision after 9/11. House Democrats released a statement on the bill declaring it unnecessary and stating that U.S. vetting policy for refugees is already the most rigorous in the world. The house will vote on the bill on Thursday.

But distrust is rampant. A brief Twitter question and answer from the White House National Security Council reiterated the president's position that the U.S. should keep its doors open, but the social media discussion was dominated by people demanding to know why the U.S. should risk accepting terrorists. In France, it is thought that one of the attackers from Friday's massacre may have had a fake Syrian passport, which has stoked concerns that refugees will be militants posing as displaced migrants.

The Obama administration has committed to acepting 10,000 Syrian refugees by 2017, and anything that the White House does is immediately criticized by the current Republican presidential candidates. Every one of the GOP's de facto rhetorical leaders in the presidential field has joined the call to halt the federal program.

During a press conference in the Philippines, Obama slammed his Republican critics for being "afraid" of refugees.

"Apparently, they are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America," Obama said. "At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of three-year-old orphans. That doesn't seem so tough to me."