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Washington • The White House asked Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday if he could use his chairmanship of the National Governors Association (NGA) to help funnel information about refugees to his counterparts across the country.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said in a letter to Herbert and his vice chairman, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, that the administration would like the NGA to serve as a vehicle to seek out requests and questions about refugees from governors to the State Department. Herbert is a Republican, and McAuliffe is a Democrat.
McDonough also said officials from the State Department and the Health and Human Services Department would brief governors at the NGA's next meeting, and that the State Department could create a password-protected website for detailed reports by state for governors to access.
"This proposal responds to governors' input while protecting the privacy of refugee families," McDonough wrote in the letter obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
The White House previously had sent Herbert and all other governors a letter discussing the vetting process for refugees after some chief executives raised security concerns about taking in those fleeing violence in Syria. More than half the nation's 50 governors mostly Republicans said they opposed taking in any Syrian refugees out of concern that terrorists might infiltrate the wave of people seeking a new home.
Unlike most of his GOP colleagues, Herbert said he wouldn't close the door to Syrian refugees seeking to come to Utah, though he added that he wants the state's Department of Public Safety to review the security checks used to vet those seeking asylum. Herbert's spokesman Jon Cox cited Utah's well-known "compassion for those who are fleeing the violence in their homeland" as the reason the governor didn't join other chief executives in demanding Syrian refugees go elsewhere.
That letter to all governors by Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson emphasized how thorough the vetting is and that the government is prioritizing "the most vulnerable of Syrian refugees" for resettlement.
Several governors had asked President Barack Obama on a conference call earlier this month to provide more information about refugees and noted that the NGA would be a good clearinghouse for providing reports on each state.
David Quam, NGA's deputy director, said that he had seen the letter only early Monday and the group would need more conversations to see what type of role it can play in the process.
"At NGA, we're very used to distributing information to governors' offices about what is going on in Washington, D.C., or different activities, so that's perfectly familiar," Quam said in an interview. "But his will be a new role."
Quam said Monday's letter was "directly" in response to the governors' request for more detailed and current information on refugees.
The NGA's next gathering is in February.