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Utah Republican lawmakers are criticizing Gov. Gary Herbert's willingness to allow Syrian refugees who have passed security screenings to settle in Utah, urging the governor to join others who have taken a hard-line stance due to fears of potential terrorist attacks.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, is leading the push to pressure Herbert into backing down on his willingness to allow refugees from the war-ravaged nation into the state and persuading him to join 30 other mostly Republican governors and Utah's federal congressional delegation in calling for a pause on the processing of applicants.
"We do want to continue to bring in refugees on the right basis, but our first obligation is to protect people here right now: ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our friends, anybody else who is already here who is good and honest," Oda said during a GOP caucus meeting Wednesday.
President Barack Obama has said the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
Thirty governors have said in the wake of the Paris attacks that they will not accept the refugees within their borders. It appears that at least one of the attackers used a Syrian passport to enter France.
Herbert, chairman of the National Governors Association, is one of just two Republican governors open to the refugees. Oda and others believe that is a mistake.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the state needs to take a stand against the federal government rather than let the president keep "cramming it down our throat whether you like it or not."
And Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said the state could make an argument that the U.S. Constitution allows states to handle immigration issues and the Legislature shouldn't cave to the federal government and liberal media.
The governor's spokesman, Jon Cox, said there was nothing further to say about Herbert's position on the refugees. But via Herbert's Twitter account, Herbert said he supports the U.S. House bill to require more stringent security screening for the refugees.
"Public safety and compassion are not mutually exclusive, but safety must come first," the governor said.
Security consultant Thomas Panuzio, who Oda invited to the House caucus, explained the process the asylum-seekers would go through, but said the state should do more.
"How can the State of Utah accurately guarantee their citizens they're safe and [the refugees] are not terrorists?" he asked. "What can the State of Utah do? The State of Utah … should have individuals vetting what the federal agency has done."
He said the governor should insist that state personnel review the interview process and the case files to ensure the thoroughness of the work. And he said there needs to be outreach to the refugees but not monitoring to make sure they assimilate once they are in the state.
Utah has resettled just 12 Syrian refugees, comprising two families. But the state expects as many as a few hundred next year.
A vote by the Utah Republican House caucus to take a formal position urging the governor to reverse course received 32 votes from the 63-member caucus short of the 38 votes needed for a caucus position.
Even though the vote failed, Oda and Ivory will gather signatures on a letter to Herbert, urging him to change course, and Oda said he believes a supermajority of members will sign the letter.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, said there is nothing that keeps a potential terrorist from rehearsing answers, passing the screening, and coming in with the refugees and "being released into our country."
"We want to be humanitarian. We know there are many, many more who need our help," he said. "But we have to be careful."
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he agrees with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, that a "pause" on allowing refugees into the country is prudent, but probably not something the Legislature will have any control over.
"I think we get to share our opinion," Hughes said, but it will be decision made at the federal level. "I don't think that's a choice we get to make."
"For me, personally, I think we need to keep our doors open, our hearts open for somebody who is really being threatened," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.
Ivory suggested that those calling for compassion from the Obama administration and others may be misplaced. He said thousands of Christians have been decapitated by Islamic State terrorists in the region and the White House has done nothing.
Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, said he is more concerned about who might be crossing the borders from Canada and Mexico without any kind of check than he is about refugees who are being vetted.