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Gov. evaluating refugee process in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has ordered the Utah Department of Public Safety to "immediately reevaluate" federal processes for vetting refugees and has not ruled out the possibility of blocking Syrian refugees from being resettled in Utah, spokesman Jon Cox said Monday.

In his statement, Cox said the governor, along with Utah's congressional delegation, will "diligently assess these security protocols, and if warranted, implement a change in state policy."

The statement comes as governors from around the country have spoken out against accepting Syrian refugees in the wake of Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris. Fueled by reports that one of the attackers was found with a Syrian passport, governors in at least 23 states have threatened to stop accepting Syrian refugees.

Utah has accepted a dozen Syrian refugees and is expected to take in 100-150 more within the next year, according to Department of Workforce Services spokesman Nic Dunn. The state is currently home to roughly 60,000 refugees and takes in about 1,100 more each year.

Cox said the governor "has not ruled out this course of action,” drawing concern from those within the refugee community and others questioning whether any governor has the legal authority to block refugees from entering their state.

Keith Squires, the commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, said the department will reach out to federal agencies to learn about their security clearance process and “any issues that might have been involved with that.”

"We'd also just like to look at the specific vetting for the individual refugees that are destined for Utah," Squires said, adding that he didn't know how long the process might take.

No new Syrian refugees are scheduled to arrive in Utah in the immediate future, according to Cox.

Aden Batar, the director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services of Utah, one of two resettlement agencies in Utah, said he fears people are "generalizing refugees with this evil act that was done by [a] terrorist group.”

“Those don't represent the refugees that are coming," Batar said.

He said the screening process for refugees, which is handled by federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, is “more strict than any other country.”

On average, it takes a minimum of two years of documentation, fingerprinting and interviews before refugees are approved for resettlement in the U.S., according to Batar.

"That is a very, very long and very strict process," Batar said.

A refugee himself, Batar fled persecution in Somalia and arrived in the U.S. as a young man.

"This is home," Batar said. "This is the home that I have known ever since I was 20-something years old ... We're not a threat to anybody. We're here because we run away from evil."

Since 2012, the U.S. has accepted 1,854 Syrian refugees. The Obama administration recently pledged to accept 10,000 more in the next 12 months.

More than 3 million Syrians are estimated to have fled their homes for neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Cearfield, raised doubts about whether federal security measures are strict enough to screen out possible terrorists "sneaking in with the refugees" and said Utah should suspend its Syrian refugee program until those doubts can be cleared.

“I can certainly see the need for compassion to help these people out, but our number one priority is public safety, and we’ve got to make sure the people we’re bringing in aren’t tied to ISIS,” Ray said. “I don’t know that we can ever guarantee that, to be honest with you.”’

Dunn of the Department of Workforce Services, which helps refugees find housing and jobs once they arrive in Utah, said the programs will continue “business as usual.”

Dunn encouraged people to get to know refugees. Many people, he said, may not realize that refugee status is a special form of protection given to people who have had to flee their country due to persecution based on race, religion, nationality or membership with a particular group. After being screened by the United Nations, they must have a particularly compelling history of persecution to be considered eligible for resettlement in the U.S.

“You’ll see stories of resilience and courage that are really unique. You have individuals who have dealt with really, really traumatic experiences in their home countries who have overcome insurmountable odds,” Dunn said.

Amr Mohamed, a board member of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Utah, said he fears the support for banning Syrian refugees may be a part of a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.

"If the media and if the government does not take the responsibility of stopping this ... we will find a lot of crimes against Muslims," said Mohamed, a doctoral candidate in metalogical engineering at the University of Utah.

He and fellow board members of the Muslim Students Association said they prayed daily — for understanding, for the families of the victims, for the destruction of the group of fighters known as the Islamic State.

"I pray to God," said Yusuf Jameel, a Ph.D. candidate in geology and geophysics from India. "Really, I pray for peace."

Imam Muhammed Mehtar, on behalf of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, released a statement on Saturday condemning the terrorist acts in Paris and beyond.

He said on Monday that the attackers do not represent Islam.

"As Muslims, it is with dread and despair that we see people who align themselves to us in faith commit such acts of soul-crushing violence," Mehtar said.

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_