MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott says he has become more comfortable with the vetting of Syrian refugees after learning more from state and federal officials about the process.
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Scott, who is a candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor, called for a pause in allowing Syrian refugees to be relocated in Vermont following the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris. Former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, Scott’s primary opponent in the gubernatorial race, has called for a similar halt to the program.
The attacks have sparked a debate across the country, and in Vermont, about whether Syrian refugees pose a national security risk. President Barack Obama and his top national security officials have said the vetting process in place is strong. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has echoed that sentiment and said Vermont will welcome some refugees.
Scott now says he has been briefed by officials on the process and has a better understanding of the vetting that refugees must go through.
“I’m still learning about the process but after being on a State Department conference call last week and meeting with the commissioner and deputy commissioner (of the Department of Public Safety) as well as state police officials yesterday I’m getting more comfortable,” Scott told the Vermont Press Bureau Wednesday. “I think the process, on its face, looks safe.”
Lisman did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
The Vermont Democratic Party and Shumlin have both been critical of Scott’s initial position of halting the program. Shumlin has been one of the few governors to speak out in favor of allowing Syrian refugees in the U.S. More than 30 governors around the country have said they will actively seek to prevent Syrians from relocating in their state over concerns that ISIS terrorists could pose as refugees.
After learning about the vetting process Scott said he will now try to help ease fears among some Vermonters.
“I think it’s important for us to now communicate that. It’s not enough for us to just dismiss safety concerns brought by many and say, ‘Trust me, it’s rigorous,’” Scott said. “It’s really our responsibility to educate ourselves and then communicate to others what we’ve learned. It can’t be just blind faith or blind trust.”
Even as his concerns over the relocation of Syrian refugees in Vermont have eased, Scott said the information he has gathered from state and federal officials has raised new concerns with student and travel visa programs.
“It did highlight some other issues that could be concerning about the visa program. It’s not a state issue but a federal issue. That is something that could be an area that we should look at. We, from a federal standpoint,” he said. “As I’ve learned, the Canadian government is going to be bringing in many refugees over the next three to four months, many in Quebec, and of course we have a border with them that we help protect.”
The Canadian government announced Wednesday it would accept as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year and as many as 25,000 next year. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will accept 10,000 Syrians next year. Shumlin said seven to eight Syrians could arrive in Vermont in the coming months.
Scott said Wednesday that his position “has not changed at all.” He said there have been “extremes on both sides of the issue who are inciting fear and anger,” which he said is not a display of “good leadership.”
“I had said from the beginning that we should pause until we could verify the system to make sure it’s safe,” he said. “If there’s a question then we should pause in order to verify the results to be sure of the process and learn about the process. That’s the part that seems to be missing. We all need to better educate ourselves about what this means for us.”
The issue sparked demonstrations at the State House on Friday and Saturday by people supporting the relocations of Syrian refugees in Vermont and some opposed. The demonstrations drew dozens who support it and just a handful who do not.
Scott said some Vermonters are angry about Shumlin’s decision to welcome Syrians to Vermont. He said he is now hoping to “dispel some of those fears and try to dispel some of the anger instead of throwing more gas on the situation.”
“I’m going to communicate what I’ve learned through different ways,” he said. “I didn’t inject myself into this. This was asked of me, if I was governor what would I do? That was my response. I’m going to continue to do my homework on the issue.”
“I can’t stress enough that I believe citizens have the right to question their government,” he added.
Scott has maintained his support for legal immigration throughout the debate.
“I think for months I was the only official who has suggested more legal immigration could be part of the solution for Vermont with our demographics. I’m all in on this, trying to grow our population and trying to stimulate the economy,” he said.