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Prospect of Syrian refugees on Long Island prompts bipartisan concerns

U.S. Rep. Peter King speaks in Great Neck

U.S. Rep. Peter King speaks in Great Neck on Sept. 2, 2015. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bales

Republicans and some Democrats stepped up calls for President Barack Obama to stop, or at least pause, his plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States next year, with Rep. Peter King and other officials from Long Island raising concerns that some of them might be resettled there.

Despite repeated assurances by Obama and others in his administration that the refugee vetting process is tough and thorough, many Republican governors and members of Congress including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have expressed doubts.

"A pause may be necessary. We're going to look at it," Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said Tuesday. He said he would take a position after a classified briefing Wednesday on the Paris attacks and refugee process.

King (R-Seaford) alluded to a September report that Catholic Charities of Amityville might accept up to 10 to 15 Syrian refugee families. The report in Long Island Business News cited two officials from Catholic Charities, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Rich Schaffer, supervisor of the Town of Babylon and chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic Committee, echoed King's concerns. "There needs to be confidence in the vetting process. It just wouldn't make sense to continue with this with everything going on," Schaffer said in a telephone interview.

King sent letters to Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), saying the admission of Syrian refugees should be halted until vetting to screen out potential terrorists gets "a top-to-bottom review" and is improved. Ryan spoke of moving legislatively for a "pause."

"Our nation has always been welcoming," Ryan said after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans. "This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry."

The concern about Syrian refugees was stoked by reports that one of the terrorists who attacked Paris last Friday posed as a Syrian refugee to get into France, King said. The authenticity of the Syrian passport he carried is uncertain.

King has been an outspoken opponent of admitting more Syrian refugees since Obama announced his plans in September because he said he has heard from FBI officials and others involved in the screening that there's no database or other information sources to check for many of them.

As more than half of U.S. governors said they want to keep the refugees out of their states, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said they have no legal authority to block them, and morally they shouldn't. "It's up to the federal government," he said. He spoke of balancing the need for effective screening with compassion. "We have to protect Americans and not lose our soul as America in the process," he said.

Admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States next year would increase the number resettled in the past year by a factor of five, according to State Department statistics. Since November 2014, 1,960 Syrian refugees have resettled in the United States, but just 48 of them in New York State. The top five states with Syrian resettlements in the past year were California, with 219; Texas, 209; Michigan, 1,999; Illinois, 148; and Florida, 104.

King said those already in the United States should be monitored by the authorities.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) sought to balance caution with charity. While calling for an immediate assessment of the refugee program and taking steps to protect Americans, he said, "We must do due diligence, but there is a way to protect our safety and our humanitarian views."

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) took a harder line. In a House floor speech Monday, Zeldin said the government's constitutional duty to protect its citizens trumps as a "moral imperative any day of the week the charity of opening our doors to a Syrian who blows himself or herself up on streets in the name of Allah."

With Yancey Roy and AP

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