HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ Gov. Tom Wolf told Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday that he is not backing down on his willingness to continue accepting Syrian refugees who are fleeing persecution and death, and said states do not have the authority to refuse refugees who are admitted by the federal government.
Wolf, a Democrat, sent the two-page letter Tuesday evening to lawmakers after some Republican lawmakers urged Wolf to block the refugees’ entry to Pennsylvania following the Paris terror attacks.
Wolf wrote that the federal government has an extensive refugee screening process that takes an average of 12 to 16 months. The screening includes an in-person interview, health and biometric screening, and involvement from anti-terrorism agencies, as well as the departments of State and Defense. He also said he has asked his administration to recommend ways to strengthen the process.
“As governor of Pennsylvania, my first priority is protecting the commonwealth,” Wolf wrote. “I believe we can keep Pennsylvania safe while also ensuring that Pennsylvania stays true to its values and builds on its rich history of accepting immigrants and refugees from around the world. These two goals are not mutually exclusive.”
A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel to the United States until those security checks are completed, he wrote.
Wolf also joined a Tuesday evening conference call between President Barack Obama and governors, but the Wolf administration declined to provide details.
The federal government said in September that it would accept an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria.
Since Oct. 1, 14 Syrian refugees have settled in Harrisburg and Erie, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. The refugees generally live in rented apartments that are financed for 30 days by the Department of State, the agency said. A federal database says about 120 have settled in Pennsylvania so far this year.
“As millions in Syria face violence, persecution and death, we should continue to help those who we can while taking care to protect our commonwealth and our country, just as have done for hundreds of years,” Wolf wrote. “To reject only Syrian refugees could embolden the message of those who seek to inspire violence by saying that we, as Americans, do not have compassion or care for specific groups of people in the world facing religious persecution.”
Republican congressmen from Pennsylvania also have urged Wolf to reconsider his acceptance. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, also asked Wolf to reconsider embracing Syrian refugees without ensuring a “full-scale review” of the screening process and to urge the federal government to strengthen the screening process.
“Until there is a clear and transparent process in place to screen refugees to ensure terrorists are not able to enter the United States and threaten our freedoms, we should not be allowing Syrian refugees to relocate to Pennsylvania,” Scarnati and Corman wrote in a Tuesday statement.