U.S. refugee quandary: Immigrant legacy vs. 9/11-era fears

America's vision of itself as a welcoming destination for the displaced was colliding with its recent memories of devastation caused by terrorists

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The Paris attacks are rapidly weakening U.S. support for bringing in thousands more Syrian refugees, as pressure grows in Congress and the Republican presidential campaign to reverse course and governors once open to resettlement try to shut their states' doors.

President Barack Obama held firm to current plans Monday, appealing to Americans to "not close our hearts" to Syria's victims of war and terrorism and denouncing calls from Republican candidates to favor Syrian Christians over Muslims in the refugee influx. His remarks, at a summit of world leaders in Turkey, seemed aimed at heading off a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment reminiscent of the 9/11 era, as much as keeping open the pathway for refugees.

America's vision of itself as a welcoming destination for the displaced was colliding with its recent memories of devastation caused by terrorists, all part of a quandary over what to do about the masses of people escaping the brutality of the Syrian conflict, perhaps with radicals in their midst.

On Monday:

- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered his state's refugee resettlement program not to accept any more Syrians, and some other Republican governors - including two GOP presidential contenders, John Kasich of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana - announced or suggested they were suspending cooperation with Washington on the program, at least until assured the newcomers were being vetted effectively for security risks. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, also a presidential candidate, said not even "orphans under 5" should be let in because the government can't be trusted to check people properly.

- Republican lawmakers called for suspension of the federal Syrian refugee program and threatened to try to stop it in legislation that must pass by Dec. 11 to keep the government running. New House Speaker Paul Ryan neither endorsed nor ruled out that course.

- Other Republican presidential candidates, already skeptical if not hostile to the refugee-welcoming plan before the attacks, stepped up their rhetoric against it. Donald Trump said that, rather than allowing refugees into the country, the U.S. should build "a big, beautiful safe zone" in Syria where refugees can wait out their brutal civil war. He'd been among the first to warn that the refugee crisis could represent a "Trojan horse" with terrorists infiltrating the ranks of innocent refugees.

- Calls by GOP rivals Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush to give preference to Christian refugees from Syria prompted a sharp rebuke from Obama. "Shameful," he said. "We don't have a religious test for our compassion."

- Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders expressed support for Obama's position. "We will not turn our back on refugees," the Vermont senator said at a campaign event in Cleveland.

At the heart of the debate is the Obama administration's decision to raise the nation's annual limit of 70,000 refugees by 10,000, with most of the new slots for Syrians, in the budget year that started Oct. 1.

That potential Syrian influx pales in comparison with the masses coming to Europe and those being accepted elsewhere. Canada, with just more than one-tenth of the U.S. population, plans to take in 25,000 Syrians in the next few months.

But indications that at least one of the attackers who killed 129 people in Paris may have crossed into France with refugees have given critics of Obama's plan a footing to demand a cutoff.

"Until we can sort out the bad guys, we must not be foolish," Republican presidential contender Ben Carson said after a Nevada campaign swing Monday. And he said of Syrians already in the U.S., "I would watch them very carefully."

Like Trump and others in the GOP race, Carson was critical of the resettlement program before Paris came under assault. But the attacks were persuasive to some who had been more open to the idea or on the fence.

"It's not that we don't want to, it's that we can't," said one of them, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Bush, too, altered his tone, asserting the "focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore," because "they're being beheaded, they're being executed by both sides." Before the attacks, he had spoken of moderate Muslims also being slaughtered in Syria, when arguing that the U.S. had a responsibility to protect them, as well.

The mood in Congress, too, may be shifting, although the issue was just taking shape. Ryan did not tip his hand on whether he would try to use House budget powers to counter an administration initiative that did not need congressional approval.

Absent congressional action, said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, "the United States will begin resettling tens of thousands of poorly vetted Syrian refugees who will eventually be able to bring in their relatives." Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, the House budget chairman, said the U.S. "must suspend our refugee program until certainty is brought to the vetting process."

Among governors now balking at the program, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, who had bucked many fellow Republican leaders by embracing the initiative, said he was suspending the welcome until federal officials reviewed security procedures and clearances.

Christie, interviewed by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, said, "I would not permit them in." When asked whether that includes orphans under 5, he said, "I don't think orphans under 5 are being - you know - should be admitted into the United States at this point."

That was a distinct change of tone from September, when Christie declared that Obama, through inaction, "has allowed these folks to be slaughtered" in Syria. "I frankly can't imagine as president of the United States how you could permit this to happen on this scale," he said.

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