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Advocates Blast Governors For Creating "Poisonous Atmosphere" For Syrian Refugees

"If ISIS had hoped the result of the Paris attacks would be small-minded panic, some governors are giving them their wish," one refugee advocate said.

Posted on November 17, 2015, at 4:48 p.m. ET

Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

An anti-refugee protester in New York City in September.

With governors in more than two dozen states coming out against resettling Syrian refugees in the wake of last week's deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, advocacy groups on Tuesday called for an end to fear-mongering they said was threatening the safety of refugees already in the U.S.

As of Tuesday, 27 governors had come out against President Obama's plans to resettle some 10,000 Syrians within the next year, citing fears that ISIS terrorists could exploit the resettlement system to infiltrate the United States. All the governors are Republican, except for New Hampshire's Magggie Hassan, a Democrat.

"Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a letter to the president. “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

But representatives from eight different national refugee groups told BuzzFeed News that such fears are unfounded due to the robust security screening process that all asylum-seekers must undergo before reaching the U.S.

Advocates said the governors were also fostering a climate of fear that threatened to turn violent for new arrivals and refugees already here.

"What this has done is made our job more complicated because we are placing [refugees] in environments that appear to be hostile in a tone set by the governors in those states," said Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of HIAS.

Linda Hartke, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that she had been "disturbed" by the governors "creating this kind of poisonous atmosphere against one nationality."

"If Syrians and other refugees who have already been resettled, based on statements by governors, then experience discrimination, bullying, physical threats, and the like, that's on the governors for creating a climate of fear where vulnerable people who have already been traumatized in their experiences as a refugee are then harmed again in the communities that have up until this moment have been welcoming in receiving refugees," she said.

Julio Cortez / AP

A family of Syrian refugees in their Jersey City, New Jersey, apartment in September.

Fears were raised after a Syrian passport, which was discovered near the body of one of the Paris attackers, was used by someone to travel into Greece and Serbia last month, according to authorities. The passport has not yet been confirmed as authentic, but anti-immigrant, far-right parties in France and Germany have said the news should prompt authorities to no longer accept the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have flooded the continent in recent months.

However, the situation in Europe is much different to that in the United States, according to John Sandweg, former acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Where those countries have been overwhelmed by refugees arriving on their doorstep, refugees seeking to settle in the U.S. are subject to a security vetting process that can take two years to complete.

"No group of individuals [entering the U.S.] are subject to greater security and vetting than our refugees," he said.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the governors should be more concerned with homegrown terrorism.

"There's always a chance, certainly, that someone could get here and become radicalized," he said, "but as we saw in the Paris attacks, the vast majority of the attackers were homegrown."

"What is confusing to me, as a US citizen, is why we're focusing on this population when there are many other ways to get into the country than going through the refugee program which requires all these security background checks," Appleby added.

Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, also defended the security measures in place.

"We know that they take special concerns of men aged 18-35 and they maybe spend less time on an 85-year-old grandmother," she said. "So they are pointed and looking for what they know to be indicators of difficulties."

Osman Orsal / Reuters

A Kurdish refugee woman from the Syrian town of Kobani at a refugee camp in January.

Many of the refugee advocates questioned what specifically the state governors could do to block refugee resettlement, given that the program operates at a federal level. They speculated some could refuse federal resettlement funding, but questioned the legality of states enacting laws prohibiting certain individuals from living, working, or studying in their borders.

"When refugees come to the United States, they are legal residents of the United States, and as such, my understanding is any legal resident of the United States may move anywhere they wish in the United States without governors' permission," Limon said.

The governors' actions, though, have helped to fan political opposition to the Obama administration's resettlement plans. State Department officials on Tuesday held a conference call to again explain to reporters the security processes in place and defend the resettlement program.

Refugee advocates also if the U.S. refused to accept Syrians, or Muslims from elsewhere in the Middle East, it would be used as a propaganda tool by jihadists.

"We're looked upon around the world as a humanitarian leader, as a leader in refugee protection," said Appleby, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "If we pull up our stakes and close our doors, we're playing right into the terrorists' hands, and we're strengthening the terrorists' voice, not weakening them."

Similarly, Hartke, of LIRS, said that if "ISIS had hoped the result of the Paris attacks would be small-minded panic, some governors are giving them their wish."

Governors in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Colorado, and Washington have all backed the president, citing a moral imperative to help those fleeing war.

"This is a time, like many times in our history, when we're called upon to decided who we are as a country," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday, adding that many Syrian refugees are specifically fleeing ISIS.

"That light on the Statue of Liberty still shines, and we ought to keep it shining throughout this crisis," he added.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.