Undeterred by terrorist attacks in France possibly involving a Syrian refugee and fears that an Islamic extremist could be welcomed onto American soil, Pittsburgh’s mayor and the governor of Pennsylvania on Monday reiterated their willingness to welcome those fleeing that war-torn nation.
“Nothing is fail-proof,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, who has asked area agencies to determine whether Pittsburgh can handle accepting 500 Syrian refugees a year. “With the amount of people that are seeking to flee from the terrorists themselves, I believe that there is a large enough pool that we will be able to find those that will help to benefit this city and this country.”
More than 4 million Syrians have fled to Europe since Syrian government forces and rebels started fighting five years ago. Five million fled to refugee camps in Middle Eastern countries, and almost 8 million remain displaced from their homes but still in Syria, the United Nations reports.
The Obama administration said in September that it plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees a year.
Police recovered a Syrian passport near a suicide bomber in Paris. The identification was of a man who passed through Greece into Europe, but it has not been determined whether it was stolen or forged, French authorities said.
ISIS on Thursday detonated two suicide bombs in southern Beirut, killing 43 people and injuring about 240.
By Monday evening, more than 20 Republican governors across the country vowed to block Syrian refugees from resettling to their states.
It is unclear whether states can legally refuse to accept refugees, although a pending bill in the House of Representatives seeks to suspend the federal refugee settlement program until it undergoes a thorough review by the Government Accountability Office. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, pledged to welcome Syrians approved by the federal government’s process.
“Gov. Wolf wants Pennsylvania to continue to build on its rich history of accepting immigrants and refugees from around the world, but he is also committed to protecting Pennsylvanians and will work with the federal government to ensure it is taking every precaution necessary in screening those families coming into the country,” Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said in a statement.
Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant Township, said Wolf should consider the safety of state residents over expending limited resources on Syrians.
“Providing a home to these refugees jeopardizes that fundamental responsibility,” Reese said. “While my first concern is that of public safety, we can’t ignore what the significant cost of providing services for these individuals is going to be.”
U.N. officials have asked member countries to take in 400,000 of the 5 million refugees in Middle Eastern camps, said Geoffery Mock, a Syria specialist for Amnesty International USA. None would come from Europe, he said.
“No vetting process can make guarantees,” Mock said. “But it has, in fact, worked to avoid crises in a dozen other countries … without a single incident of terrorism in the U.S.”
U.N. officials review refugee resettlement requests and pass along potential candidates to the State Department’s Resettlement Service Centers.
“Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States,” said State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala. “Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening, the classified details of which have been briefed to Congress.”
Investigators with the State Department, Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center examine applicants’ backgrounds, run fingerprints and photographs through databases of terrorists’ names and conduct in-depth interviews. The process can take 18 to 24 months.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, on Monday called for a halt to allowing Syrian refugees into the United States and Pennsylvania.
“While most refugees are innocent people in dire situations, unfortunately, we presently have no fully reliable way of vetting those who come from chaotic terrorist havens such as Syria,” Toomey said. “As a result, we should suspend refugee admissions from Syria until we are able to determine with full confidence that there are no security risks among them. The safety of our people must come first.”
President Obama, speaking during the G-20 summit in Turkey, said the safety of Americans is a priority and expressed confidence in the vetting process to keep terrorists out.
In the past three years, Pennsylvania has accepted 8,260 international refugees. Of those, 124 came from Syria. A total of 10 resettled in Pittsburgh and the region, according to the state Department of Human Services.
Public safety is a top priority but one that is equal to living up to long-held American principles, Peduto said.
“It’s difficult at times because I do realize people are fearful and afraid. The safety of their families is paramount. And I agree with them,” the mayor said. “I would never do anything to put this city in jeopardy. I think people know I love this city too much to ever do that.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412- 320-7936 or [email protected].