WASHINGTON — With the Obama administration poised to welcome thousands more Syrian refugees into the country, Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he has confidence in the vetting process for those making a new home in Tennessee after fleeing a war zone.
His shift in perspective comes just four months after he agreed to let the state sue the federal government over refugee settlement, and just one day after the Obama administration announced it plans to sharply increase the number of refugees accepted by the United States to 110,000 in fiscal 2017.
Haslam told the News Sentinel on Thursday he doesn’t object to Syrian refugees or others settling in Tennessee.
During an appearance at a luncheon in Anderson County, the governor said he recently met with U.S. State Department officials and Catholic Charities and is convinced “they’re doing a good job” vetting refugees coming to Tennessee.
The Republican governor said there aren’t many times he trusts the federal government, “but I do think they have all the right controls and procedures in place” regarding background checks and vetting for resettlement.
The Obama administration said the additional refugee intake is necessary to help stem a migrant crisis gripping Europe and the Middle East. The new target is a 29 percent increase over the 85,000 refugees accepted this fiscal year and a 57 percent hike over the 70,000 allowed in each year between 2013 and 2015.
More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed into the country this year, and new figures released Thursday provide a clearer picture of where they’re resettling.
Some 240 have resettled in Tennessee, according to the State Department Refugee Processing Center. Of those, 124 are in Nashville, 112 are in Memphis, three are in Germantown and one is in Spring Hill.
Tennessee ranks 17th among states in resettled Syrian refugees.
Resettlement has proven controversial in many states, including Tennessee, where the Legislature voted earlier this year to instruct Attorney General Herbert Slatery to sue the federal government for noncompliance with the Refugee Act of 1980.
Proponents argued the legal proceedings were necessary because the federal government didn’t consult with the state on the resettlements.
Haslam allowed the resolution calling for the lawsuit to take effect without his signature. Slatery, however, declined to file the suit, saying the state was unlikely to succeed.
At the White House, an adviser to President Barack Obama sought Thursday to reassure states worried about the influx of Syrians entering the country.
Syrian refugees must undergo extensive background checks that can last up to two years. U.S. and United Nations officials verify asylum seekers’ stories and check possible ties to terrorist organizations, said Avril Haines, principal deputy national security adviser.
“Syrian refugees get a more extensive vetting than anybody else,” Haines told reporters for regional newspapers across the country.
The vetting process is working, Haines said, adding that 80 percent of those allowed into the United States are women and children and just a small percentage are men over age 18.
“Looking at the process and looking at the track record should give people some solace in the vetting process,” she said.