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Maps

Governors Don't Want Syrian Refugees. Mayors Are Asking for Even More

Your state might oppose Syrian refugee resettlement, but odds are your city feels the opposite.

Eighteen mayors signed a letter in September telling President Barack Obama that they could take in even more Syrian refugees. The leaders of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities urged the president to increase the number of refugees that the U.S. plans to admit.

Since the November 13 attacks in Paris, the political landscape has shifted. The governors of more than half of U.S. states have said, with varying degrees of intensity, that they do not want any Syrian refugees resettling within their borders. All but one of them, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, is a Republican.

(Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

Despite the attacks in Paris and the political fallout in the U.S., none of the mayors who asked for more refugees is backing down. In fact, more mayors are joining their ranks. Ever since Republican governors began lining up against refugee resettlement, the mayors of many of the largest cities within those states have insisted that embracing refugees is still a core priority for American cities.

Houston, which admits more refugees than any city in the nation, still supports Syrian refugees, even in light of the hard position carved out by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. "Not allowing refugees makes America look weak,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker told reporters. It is the only humane thing to do.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings also spoke out in recent days in support of finding a home for Syria’s refugees, telling The Dallas Morning News that it is “the spirit of Dallas” to offer help.

Refugee resettlement is the latest partisan wedge that divides Democratic mayors and Republican governors. Governors say that security concerns override any other interests in resettling refugees. Mayors, on the other hand, say that accepting refugees and immigration comes with cultural and economic benefits.

(Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

Within the last week, mayors in anti-refugee states have publicly pledged their support for resettling Syrian refugees. Here’s a working list of leaders from the largest ones who support refugee resettlement:

Now, this list can’t hope to name every city whose mayor has issued a statement about refugee resettlement. (It is being updated to account for mayors in anti-refugee states who do. Also, please see the update at the bottom of this post.) There are of course mayors in pro-refugee states, including Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who are making note of their support for Syrian war refugees.

And it’s not just large metro areas, either. Christopher Taylor, the mayor of Swisher, Iowa—a town of just 900 people—issued a statement welcoming Syrians in need of aid. Some states, such as Mississippi, have not been approached about resettling any Syrian refugees at all, but nevertheless oppose it. The lone Republican governor who has not announced his opposition to refugee resettlement, Utah Governor Gary Herbert, has simply acknowledged that governors cannot make that decision. Salt Lake City Mayor Ben McAdams (a Democrat) has joined him on this neutral point.

At the federal level, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul has introduced a bill that would stop the U.S. from supporting Syrian refugee resettlement. President Obama has threatened to veto any such legislation. (UPDATE: The House passed a bill that would “pause” Syrian refugee resettlement by a bipartisan 289–137 vote.) At the state level, leaders can’t stop the federal government from resettling refugees within their borders, but governors are able to gum up the works since most states distribute the federal funds that provide refugees with cash assistance, medical aid, and employment services.

At the local level, mayors can no more stop the placement of refugees than governors. So the provocative statement from Roanoke Mayor David Bowers—that the threat of ISIS might now justify placing Syrian refugees in internment camps like those used to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II—is little more than historically insensitive bluster.

The mayors who are speaking up in support of Syrian refugee resettlement are the leaders of the communities where those Syrians are bound to make their homes. It’s no small thing that the mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Houston are insisting that their communities will welcome Syrian refugees even after the 11/13 attacks. These cities have long been the destination for the more than three million refugees who have settled peacefully in the U.S. since 1980. Many of the governors denouncing resettlement this week have far less at stake than these mayors.

While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was slow to answer questions about refugees this week, Wednesday he ripped into New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over his statements about Syrian orphans. In a press conference, the mayor held up a notorious photo of a drowned Syrian boy.

“This is the cost of not bringing in people who are innocent victims of a humanitarian crisis. This child’s death was on the front pages of newspapers all over the world,” Mayor de Blasio said. “Governor Christie specifically said he did not think it was appropriate for small children to be brought in. Is this what he wants to see happen to people? Is this what he wants to see happen to children? We don’t accept that here in New York City.”

(Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

UPDATE 11/20: Today, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a letter to Congress. Speaking on behalf of many if not most of the nation’s mayors, the letter reiterated the Conference’s support for the federal refugee resettlement program—and the benefits that refugees and immigrants bring to cities.

That letter, signed by 62 mayors, is copied below.

Dear Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate:

We write to register the support of the nation’s mayors for the U.S. refugee resettlement system and to recognize the importance of continuing to welcome refugees to our country and to our cities. In recent days some have suggested that Congress should halt the entry of refugees, particularly Syrian refugees, to this nation. We urge you to resist this call and take no action that will prevent Syrian refugees from entering the United States after they have completed the screening process.

Last year the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted policy that recognizes this nation’s leadership in protecting refugees and celebrates the contributions refugees make to their communities. Through that policy, the Conference supports efforts by the federal government to ensure that the U.S. resettlement program remains responsive to the needs of refugees and of the communities in which they settle.

The policy describes the U.S. refugee resettlement program, administered by the Departments of State and Health and Human Services, as a unique and robust public-private partnership of the federal government, state and local governments, non-profit agencies, and individuals. That resettlement program begins with a rigorous screening system, one that subjects potential refugees to the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any category of traveler to the United States.

Our nation has always been a beacon of hope for those seeking peace and protection from persecution. We urge you to take no action that will jeopardize this rich and proud heritage.

Sincerely,

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mayor of Baltimore, MD
President

Greg Stanton, Mayor of Phoenix, AZ
Mark Mitchell, Mayor of Tempe, AZ
Jonathan Rothschild, Mayor of Tucson, AZ
Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles, CA
Kevin Johnson, Mayor of Sacramento, CA
Edwin Lee, Mayor of San Francisco, CA
Lindsey Horvath, Mayor of West Hollywood, CA
Christopher Cabaldon, Mayor of West Sacramento, CA
Michael B. Hancock, Mayor of Denver, CO
Pedro Segarra, Mayor of Hartford, CT
Muriel E. Bowser, Mayor of Washington, DC|
Peter Bober, Mayor of Hollywood, FL
Rick Kriseman, Mayor of St. Petersburg, FL
Michael Ryan, Mayor of Sunrise, FL
Andrew Gillum, Mayor of Tallahassee, FL
Ted Terry, Mayor of Clarkston, GA
David H. Bieter, Mayor of Boise, ID
Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago, IL
Elizabeth Tisdahl, Mayor of Evanston, IL
Chris Koos, Mayor of Normal, IL
Laurel Prussing, Mayor of Urbana, IL
Thomas Henry, Mayor of Fort Wayne, IN
Karen Freeman-Wilson, Mayor of Gary, IN
Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, IN
Greg Fischer, Mayor of Louisville, KY
Michael Brennan, Mayor of Portland, ME
Martin J. Walsh, Mayor of Boston, MA
James Fiorentini, Mayor of Haverhill, MA
Setti Warren, Mayor of Newton, MA
Joseph Curtatone, Mayor of Somerville, MA
Mike Duggan, Mayor of Detroit, MI
George Heartwell, Mayor of Grand Rapids, MI
Virg Bernero, Mayor of Lansing, MI
Ardell Brede, Mayor of Rochester, MN
Sylvester James, Mayor of Kansas City, MO
Francis Slay, Mayor of St. Louis, MO
Bert Steinmann, Mayor of Ewing, NJ
Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo, NY
Wayne J. Hall, Sr., Mayor of Hempstead, NY
Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, NY
Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York, NY
Lovely Warren, Mayor of Rochester, NY
Stephanie Miner, Mayor of Syracuse, NY
Mark Kleinschmidt, Mayor of Chapel Hill, NC
Michael Coleman, Mayor of Columbus, OH
John A. McNally, Mayor of Youngstown, OH
Charlie Hales, Mayor of Portland, OR
Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown, PA
Michael A. Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia, PA
William Peduto, Mayor of Pittsburgh, PA
Edwin Garcia-Feliciano, Mayor of Camuy, PR
Joseph P. Riley, Jr., Mayor of Charleston, SC
Kim McMillan, Mayor of Clarksville, TN
Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin, TX
Michael S. Rawlings, Mayor of Dallas, TX
Jesus Ruiz, Mayor of Socorro, TX
Mark Shepherd, Mayor of Clearfield City, UT
Ralph Becker, Mayor of Salt Lake City, UT
William Euille, Mayor of Alexandria, VA
McKinley Price, Mayor of Newport News, VA
Ed Murray, Mayor of Seattle, WA

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.