McCrory's resistance to Syrian refugees evolved quickly, remains in place
Posted January 31, 2016
Updated February 1, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers "lit up" Fred Steen's phone the weekend following the Paris terrorist attacks on Friday, Nov. 13.
Gov. Pat McCrory's chief legislative lobbyist says the calls were sparked by news reports that one of the Paris attackers may have posed as an asylum seeker. Earlier in the fall, President Barack Obama's administration had announced plans to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States.
"They were calling and asking if we we were going to do anything," Steen recalled.
In interviews, McCrory administration officials say there were ongoing discussions that weekend about a potential response. But when Steen dashed off a message to McCrory's personal email account, it was the first written note by one of his senior advisers urging the governor to consider action, according emails provided in response to a public records request.
"I think you should consider coming out in opposition to any more Syrian refugees coming here to the US or N. Carolina because the FBI says they cannot vet the Syrian refugees," Steen wrote, linking to a story in World Net Daily critical of U.S. refugee policy.
Early the next morning, McCrory forwarded that email – adding only "FYI" – from his iPhone to his chief of staff, Thomas Stith.
By 8:45 a.m., McCrory, Stith, Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry and Health and Human Services Secretary Rick Brajer were on a conference call together. Throughout the day, both a set of talking points and a letter to Obama were drafted and redrafted by senior advisers. Shortly after 3 p.m., the governor was ready to make an announcement.
"I am making a request to the president of the United States to cease allowing immigrants coming from Syria until we get thorough verification that all the immigrants coming in are not safety risks," McCrory told reporters in Charlotte.
Eventually, McCrory would become one of 30 governors to make similar statements, drawing praise from some, particularly lawmakers, but criticism from resettlement groups that said the governor was giving license to people inclined to act out against immigrants.
"It created a massive of amount of hysteria," said Andrew Timbie, who at the time headed the High Point office of World Relief.
His nonprofit humanitarian group still gets calls he describes as threatening, two months after the initial firestorm.
Jimmy Broughton, McCrory's deputy chief of staff and one of those who played a role in shaping and communicating the Syrian refugee policy, said Friday the governor remains concerned about ensuring the safety of North Carolinians.
"We've got to get more information in a timely manner," Broughton said.
But thus far, that request has been ignored by the Obama administration. A handful of refugees have moved to North Carolina since Nov. 13, despite McCrory's call for a freeze on relocations.
Responding to violence
Shootings and bomb blasts in five different Paris locations, including a soccer stadium and a concert venue, left 130 dead and more than 100 in critical condition on Nov. 13. The attacks, organized by the group calling itself the Islamic State, were the subject of intense media coverage throughout the following weekend.
Gov. McCrory's resistance to Syrian refugees developed quickly Reports that one of the attackers may have posed as a refugee sparked outward concern from congressmen and state officials, especially Republicans, about the Obama administration's plans to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States. Those involved in the presidential campaign were particularly quick on the draw. For example, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, issued an executive order on Nov. 16 purporting to block refugees from resettling in his state.
Despite calls to stop the flow of refugees, governors have little power to stop the federal resettlement program. The nonprofit groups who manage the program in partnership with the federal government have continued to move refugees to states where governors have taken stands similar to McCrory's, including Texas, which sued to stop resettlement.
Since Nov. 13, 13 refugees from Syria have been resettled in North Carolina, according to data available from the U.S. State Department. That's a small slice of the 548 Syrian refugees who have entered the country since the Paris attacks. Since Jan. 1, 2010, 70 Syrian nationals with refugee status have settled in North Carolina, compared with 2,739 nationally during the same time period.
"States can't pick and choose which refugees they take in," said Miji Bell, an executive in the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services national office in Baltimore.
She likened North Carolina's reaction to Syrians to other "waves" of resistance to refugees, such as the outcries that developed in response to Vietnamese asylum seekers in the 1980s or Sudanese "lost boys" in the 1990s.
"If they're using that federal resettlement funding, states have to make sure services are delivered without regard to race, religion or nationality," Bell said.
That hasn't kept states from trying to resist. Georgia's governor was forced earlier this month to back off an executive order aimed at keeping Syrian refugees out of his state. A South Carolina state Senate committee last week passed a measure that would require state police to track refugees coming to the state and hold their sponsors liable for damages if those refugees commit act of terrorism. Advocates for refugee programs question whether such a law would withstand constitutional scrutiny.
Syrians resettled through refugee program
|Year||North Carolina||United States|
Source: U.S. State Department
Between the time he passed on Steen's email for action and met by phone with his staff on Nov. 16, McCrory received an email in his private account from a Matthews resident, urging him to follow the lead of governors in Alabama and Michigan who had already said they didn't want Syrian refugees coming to the state.
"If you joined these two governors ... in their resistance, it certainly separates you from Roy Cooper in a bigger way and takes away the media's recent hatchet job on you," read the email, referencing the Democratic attorney general and front-runner for his party's nomination to take on McCrory this year.
The email added, "NC IS NOT a Jihadi state!!"
It's unclear if McCrory read that or other similar emails, but by 11 a.m. that Monday, Matthew McKillip, a policy adviser to the governor, began circulating a potential statement on the refugee issue. Early drafts read in part, "I am urging the federal government to stringently review its policies and procedures regarding background screening and placement of refugees."
That wasn't strong enough language for Brajer, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers federal resettlement funds that come to nonprofit agencies in the state.
"Should we include wording that more or less states that until we, as a State, are convinced that background screening is robust and can control for potential terrorists, that we won’t accept any refugees from Syria?" Brajer asked.
Stith, McCrory's chief of staff, seconded the point.
"I agree with Rick. We need to make a strong statement that makes it clear NC will determine if we will accept refugees," Stith wrote in a one-sentence reply.
Throughout the day, that language would continue to evolve.
The eventual statement that McCrory would make that afternoon would emphasize that he was asking for the program to be curbed, not attempting to bar refugees unilaterally. Emails provided by the administration don't make clear why that language was softened. However, there were references to a regular Monday conference call with the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, a 501(c)(4) organization related to the better known Republican Governors Association.
Janel Broderick, the RGA's policy director who would have organized the call, declined to answer questions about that call.
Broughton said that Virginia Johnson, McCrory's federal liaison, would have been on that call but downplayed its significance. He and Communications Director Josh Ellis say the change in language was part of a typical vetting process that ensures McCrory is "factually correct" when he speaks.
That afternoon, McCrory drove home the point that North Carolina officials did not have confidence in the vetting process that brought refugees into the country.
"We would trust them more if they would tell us more of what they're doing," McCrory told reporters that afternoon. In response to another question, the governor allowed, "What worries me is that some of these people could actually be ISIS."
That prompted World Relief's Timbie to pick up the phone.
Information not available
By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 395 callers had spoken to staffers or left voice mails at the Governor's Office to say they approved of McCrory's actions. Only 10, according to a count by McCrory's constituent service staff, disapproved.
Timbie, who is now a regional director for World Relief, would add to the list who didn't approve of what he heard from the governor. His agency in High Point had settled the most Syrians out of any of the nonprofits working in North Carolina, and he wanted to sit down with McCrory so he could correct what he considered misinformation.
"Most of the statements weren't accurate, and if they were accurate, they were inflammatory," Timbie said.
Most troubling, he said, were suggestions by McCrory that the state and nonprofit agencies had no idea who refugees were or where they were.
"We report early on in the process to a database that's created by the Department of Health and Human Services," Timbie said, adding that the governor seemed to be ignoring resources that were at his own administrations' fingertips.
At least one law enforcement official suggested this route to McCrory administration officials.
"Gentlemen, had several more discussions today on this and looks like I am not going to be able to get the names through my side," Nicholas Klem, the state's liaison with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, wrote to Perry, the state public safety director.
In that email, which Perry forwarded to the Governor's Office, Klem onto suggest, "I am not sure if they would be willing, but N.C. HHS might be an option."
In fact, resettlement groups like World Relief report the names and addresses of the people they're working with to DHHS, but that information is not readily available to public safety officials.
A request for information has to be "specific," said Deputy Secretary for Human Services Sherry Bradsher. DHHS, she said, could not simply turn over its whole refugee database to law enforcement.
"There's got to be a need identified," she said.
Typically, that need would be expressed in the form of a subpoena with regard to a particular individual, and that database won't have information on every refugee in the state.
Bell, of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, says some refugees may wind up in North Carolina and not need services. For example, they may have family and community connections that allow them to do without job training or other government-provided aid. Others will have entered the U.S. through another state and subsequently moved to North Carolina. Refugee status is much like any other immigration status. Once someone is in the country legally, Bell said, those people have the right to move about freely.
Within a year, most of those in the program move on to apply for permanent resident status, shedding the "refugee" label.
Broughton said the lack of information still troubles the governor. While the state has a humanitarian role to play, he said McCrory worries that humanitarian drive could create a public safety threat. He points out that two Iraqis who came to the U.S. as refugees were arrested on terrorism-related charges earlier this month.
But neither he nor Ellis could say exactly what the state might do with information on the refugees if it were passed on, saying that it would be a security matter.
"Some folks like to talk about the Syrians in the same context of ISIS and lump them together" said Bell.
If ISIS operatives were trying to come to the United States, she said, a refugee settlement process that typically takes two years and involves multiple interviews with government agents and contractors probably wouldn't be the route they'd choose, she said.
"The U.S. has the most rigorous vetting process for refugees of any country. ... It takes a really long time," she said.
Frustration with White House
It was that process that Obama administration officials said they wanted to outline for governors on a Nov. 17 conference call. McCrory was flying to Las Vegas to meet with fellow GOP governors at the time but issued a terse order before he took off.
"We need someone on this call," McCrory said, one of his few written directives during this time.
Perry and others listened in to the White House briefing, which featured high-level officials from both the State Department and Department of Homeland Security detailing the refugee vetting process. A key question on the mind of many at the time was how anyone could conduct background checks when, as FBI Director James Comey told Congress on Oct. 22, databases with information from that part of the world are, at best, incomplete, if they exist at all.
Alejandro Mayorkas, a deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, told the governors that, just because databases were incomplete, did not mean that background checks couldn't be thorough. He described a system of interviews and investigations conducted by government officials and contractors that probed for inconsistencies in an applicant's story and "red flags" in his or her history.
Gov. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, asked how what the U.S. government was doing differed from European nations, which continue to see a mass movement of people from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
Mayorkas explained that there was a difference between Europe, where countries abut one another, and the United States, where people have to travel by plane to get here.
"Our screening is, quite frankly, unsurpassed," he insisted.
It wasn't just Republicans who were skeptical. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, blasted the White House officials on the line.
"I have to tell you, from my perspective, the federal government does not communicate well with us about the refugees being settled in our state," she said.
Others expressed frustration with their fellow governors.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat from Vermont, said his fellow governors shouldn't give in to "public hysteria," pointing out the program hasn't has a problem in the past.
"This is a time when we governors need to have a spine," Shumlin said.
However, Shumlin was in the minority, and while White House officials pledged better communication, they also pledged to continue to pursue the refugee program as it was.
That response didn't appear to sit will governors who were on the call and did not assuage McCrory's staff or, by proxy, the governor.
"A lot of this is about communication and being able to understand the process," Broughton said.
The following day, McCrory would describe the White House call as a "good first step," but in an interview broadcast on National Public Radio's "The Diane Rehm Show" continued to express concerns about the refugee vetting process.
"It's very difficult to get the legitimate background checks, and those raise concern for us in a nation where there's a civil war," McCrory told guest host Susan Page.
Talking points prepared for McCrory at the time emphasized the state had "received little to no security information…on these refugees’ backgrounds. We need more collaboration and basic information such as where these refugees are residing."
A news release issued the same day would double down on that message, as would Broughton, when he was called to appear before the General Assembly's Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, a panel made up of the state's top leaders.
"The difficult of background checks was again confirmed on the call last night," Broughton told lawmakers, who in general expressed support for McCrory's stand on refugees.
At the same time as the McCrory administration was staking out its position, Cooper also called for a pause in refugee resettlement into the state. However, it's less clear how Cooper made this decision. A records request put to the Attorney General's Office produced only two documents, both of them emails from the same constituent who demanded Cooper stop the flow of refugees to North Carolina.
A few weeks after the initial furor over refugees, Broughton and Timbie met, along with other administration officials and volunteers who deal with resettlement issues.
Matt Miglarese, local outreach pastor for Summit Church, a congregation of 9,000 members throughout the Triangle, sat in on that meeting. He said last week that he was there to listen and learn.
"The one message that I did want to bring was that there is a church of people, a community of people, that were ready and willing to shoulder the responsibility of helping the people coming here," Miglarese said.
Volunteers from his church meet refugees at the airport or volunteer with other aspects of the resettlement program. He was less sure about the security issues that were discussed but said he hoped they wouldn't block his church's mission to be of service.
"Gov. McCrory and his staff have a different responsibility. There's a part of me that understands that," he said. "My hope would be that our state and our community would give us an opportunity to be a place that offers help to those who are in need."
Timbie expressed more frustration, saying that he pushed the Governor's Office to back off its refugee rhetoric, which has made resettlement work more difficult.
"What we're fighting is an election cycle," he said, noting that resisting Obama administration policy and raising concerns about refugees resonates with a certain segment of voters.
Broughton points out that Republican and Democratic governors alike have appealed for more information about refugees and are unlikely to back off their calls for more information.
The National Governors Association, a bipartisan group that helps represent the 50 states, is scheduled to meet in Washington, D.C., next month.
"I expect we'll have a thorough discussion there," Broughton said.