COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley isn’t ready to close South Carolina’s borders to all refugees, she just doesn’t want any Syrians coming to the state after the terrorist attacks in Paris last weekend that killed 129 and injured hundreds.
“As governor, it is my first and primary duty to ensure the safety of the citizens of South Carolina,” Haley said in a written letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “While I agree that the United States should try to assist individuals in such dire situations, it is precisely because of the situation in Syria that makes their admission into the United States a potential threat to our national security.”
Haley joined a growing number of mostly Republican governors in saying they would refuse to allow Syrian refugees into their states if the Obama administration goes through with its plan to let 10,000 into the country.
Haley has in the past supported faith-based groups — Lutheran Family Services in Columbia and World Relief Spartanburg — that have resettled refugees in South Carolina, including Christians facing religious persecution in their homelands.
Questioned about whether she would oppose Syrian refugees coming to South Carolina, Haley said she was discussing it with the FBI and Homeland Security.
There are no Syrian refugees currently in South Carolina, she said, adding if that were to change, she would have to re-evaluate her stance on accepting refugees.
Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration, said under the Refugee Act of 1980 governors cannot legally block refugees from settling in their communities.
Despite the legal obstacles, state lawmakers have called on Haley to reject any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to the Palmetto State.
Even before the attacks in Paris, for which the Islamic State based in Syria and Iraq claimed responsibility, state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he planned to pre-file a bill barring state money and state employees from being used to help relocate Syrian refugees to South Carolina.
At the time, Limehouse voiced concern over the potential of a terrorist crossing into the United States under the guise of being a refugee. As of Friday, one of the suicide bombers in the Paris attacks appears to have entered Europe with Syrian refugees.
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to get attacked on American soil,” Limehouse said. “The question is when. I’m sorry for what’s happening over there, but my suggestion to (President) Barack Obama is to go ahead and fix the problem in Syria and help them stay in their country.”
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, also sent a letter to Haley, before she made her announcement, imploring her to cancel the agreement her office and the Department of Social Services had made with third-party groups to provide shelter for refugees.
“You are on the record of supporting this refugee program,” Peeler wrote. “As Senate Majority Leader, I implore you to protect our state from terrorist activity.”
Republican congressmen may try to use must-pass government spending legislation to block Obama’s plans to increase the number of Syrian refugees entering the United States. Congress is facing a Dec. 11 deadline to approve a spending bill to keep the government running.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama released a letter on Monday saying the legislation should require congressional approval for the president’s refugee resettlement plans and the money needed to carry them out.
New House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, said he’s looking at all options.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Gavin Jackson and Cynthia Roldan at (843) 577-7111.