Sweet: Rauner says Obama’s info on Syrian refugees falls short

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WASHINGTON — The Rauner administration, concerned about Syrian refugees coming to Illinois, said Monday that an Obama White House move to provide more information — intended to resolve an impasse — fell far short of what is needed.

In essence, it appears that Rauner wants veto power over the refugees sent to Illinois.

The sticking point between Rauner and the White House over Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war remains whether the federal government will give Illinois information about them before their arrival.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, in a letter to Rauner and other governors obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, said the White House will speed up giving states nationality, age range and gender of refugees — but after they arrived and with no names attached.

McDonough said the White House would work with the National Governors Association at their next meeting, and in the meantime the State Department would provide state-specific generic information about refugees monthly in a password-protected website.

That move would streamline and speed up a system that already pushes out much of that state-by-state data.

“This proposal responds to Governors’ input while protecting the privacy of refugee families,” McDonough said in his letter.

OPINION

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After the Paris terrorist attacks, Rauner and about 30 other governors — all but one Republican — called for a temporary halt to Syrian refugees coming to the U.S., not convinced the layers of screenings, which take more than a year, could root out a terrorist posing as a refugee.

After Rauner said Illinois would have a resettlement pause, for a practical matter, nothing changed. In an effort to assure Rauner on the security front, Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson sent the governor a letter providing details of the vetting process for Syrian refugees.

McDonough and Rauner personally talked about the situation, but the impasse has yet to be resolved.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in an email that the letter “completely ignores Governor Rauner’s request that background vetting information be provided to state officials prior to refugee resettlement in Illinois.”

“Rather than briefing state officials on the background vetting information compiled by the intelligence community prior to resettlement, the White House wants to provided limited information after resettlement has already occurred.

“Given the close coordination that exists between state and federal officials on a range of issues related to homeland security, the White House’s continued refusal to provide vetting information to states prior to resettling refugees is truly puzzling,” she said.

The Obama administration set a goal of resettling 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. in 2016.

Meanwhile, a bigger potential vulnerability is the 20 million visitors coming to the U.S. each year from the 38 nations that are part of the Visa Waiver Program — not refugees who are subject to multiple layers of screenings over the course of more than a year.

On Monday, the Obama White House announced tougher screenings for the visa waiver visitors, including bolstering the ability of the U.S. to determine who may have traveled to conflict zones, a sign that an individual may be training to be a terrorist.

While the Obama White House and Congress may be on a collision course over refugees — before leaving for the Thanksgiving break the House passed a bill to make it harder for Iraqi and Syrians to get in the U.S. — there may be more common ground when it comes to cracking down on visa waivers.

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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