Refugees Of History

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2015 file photo, Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece. More than 76 years later, fresh angst about whether to admit refugees or turn them away has put the spotlight back on the 1939 shunning of the St. Louis, an ocean line carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees trying to escape Europe and other, now widely regretted, decisions by U.S. officials before and during World War II. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

Petros Giannakouris

A group of Montana legislators is calling on Gov. Steve Bullock to block all Syrian refugees from entering Montana.

The letter is signed by 55 legislators, all Republicans. It was written by Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville.

In the letter, Thomas and the legislators call on Bullock to "use all legal means to block or resist the placement of Syrian refugees in our great state at this time."

Although at least 31 governors have said they will block, oppose or fight refugees moving in, it's not a decision that's in the states' hands. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled refugees are under the authority of the federal government. The Refugee Act of 1980 also clarifies federal authority.

"I've read articles where that is disputed as to what can and what can't be done," Thomas said. "But it's our understanding there are things the governor can do."

Thomas said that even with a lack of ability to refuse refugees, the move isn't political grandstanding. He said he wants a better screening process for refugees and wants Bullock to send that message to the Obama administration.

"We want the governor to step up and say unless the federal system can get to where the refugees are fully vetted and we know who is coming from where, we just don't want to open our door to refugees from the most dangerous spot in the world," Thomas said. "We just don't want the governor blindly following that guy."

Last week, Bullock's office spoke with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security about the protocols for refugee placement. Homeland Security and the State Department sent Bullock a letter detailing the security vetting process for refugees, especially those from Syria.

The letter says the process is "extraordinarily thorough and comprehensive" and the "most robust screening process for any category of individuals seeking admission into the U.S."

Bullock said previously the safety of Montanans is his “top priority" and said he would review the federal screening process.

“After reviewing the protocols, the governor is confident in their stringency and their ability to provide safe haven for those fleeing violence in their own country, while ensuring the safety of Montanans,” Bullock’s deputy communications director, Mike Wessler, said Tuesday. “As with any security issue, he will continue to monitor the situation as it continues to develop.”

Katherine Quittenton, the state refugee coordinator, said Tuesday that no Syrians had requested to be placed in Montana.

Thomas said he would feel comfortable with the rules laid out in a bill that passed the U.S. House last week to tighten the screening process for Syrian refugees. The bill by House GOP members, which President Barack Obama has said he will veto if it passes the Senate, would require FBI background checks and have the directors of the FBI and national intelligence, as well as the Homeland Security secretary, sign off on each refugee.

"Certainly that's a starting point for what needs to be done," Thomas said. "Being careful and cautious at this point is the only thing we can do," he said.

Thomas said he's not anti-refugee.

"The worst thing that could be done is the Obama administration just blindly brings people into this country and an issue happens," he said. "That's going to slam the door on future refugees. That's the worst thing that could happen, not only to America from a safety standpoint but also to future refugees."

He said his Bitterroot Valley saw many refugees from Cambodia fleeing the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. "Several hundred came here," he said. "There was never any issue with those people being here, never anybody saying we don't want those people. But they didn't bring with them the concern over terrorist violence to this area and the United States of America."

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