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Call to bar Syrian refugees from Mass. draws limited backing

Governor Charlie Baker spoke about security and the Paris terrorist attacks at a news conferenece at the State House on Sunday.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker found limited support Tuesday among the state's congressional delegation for halting the resettlement — at least temporarily — of Syrian refugees in Massachusetts, and US Representative Seth Moulton, a four-tour Iraq veteran, continued a verbal spat with the governor.

Baker criticized Moulton on Tuesday for resorting to "partisan talking points" concerning the governor's proposal that Massachusetts stop accepting Syrian refugees until more is learned about the screening process.

"Governor Baker doesn't know the difference between refugees and those from whom they need refuge," Moulton wrote Monday on Twitter.

On Tuesday, the first-term Democratic congressman from Salem fired another salvo. "My American values and Marine Corps experience are not 'partisan talking points,' " he said in a Twitter post. Baker, he continued, "should know better."

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The Republican governor told reporters Tuesday he did not think Moulton — "a serious guy" — would have disparaged his proposal if he knew its entire context. But the former Marine officer dismissed that suggestion.

"I didn't miss the statement that he made," Moulton said. "If he thinks that a process that takes 18 to 24 months to even complete should be slammed shut on the very victims of ISIS, he's just playing into the hands of our enemies."

Moulton said the vetting process should be reviewed regularly, but added that gaining refugee status in the United States is a rigorous proposition. There are 72 Syrian refugees in Massachusetts, according to the US State Department.

"All of our refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States," Moulton said. "Unlike in Europe, we screen our refugees before they are admitted to the US."

Baker did receive the support of US Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston, who said it is appropriate to bar Syrian refugees while the system is scrutinized. One of the Paris attackers carried a Syrian passport.

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"It's wise to pause and make sure that we have the necessary steps in place, now that we know that ISIL" — an acronym, along with ISIS, for Islamic State militants — "has used this tactic of blending in with legitimate refugees in order to conduct terrorist attacks on innocent people," Lynch said.

US Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, called for a tough look at the refugee-admission system.

“Unlike in Europe, we screen our refugees before they are admitted to the US,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Salem.Drew Angerer for The Boston Globe/File 2015/Globe Freelance

"Stricter vetting protocols need to be established by the Department of Homeland Security for those seeking asylum here. The American people have to be assured that thorough security clearances and screening are being done on every refugee looking to resettle in the United States," Neal said. "While I recognize that there is a very serious humanitarian crisis in Syria, I am also concerned about the safety of American citizens."

Although the entire congressional delegation, all of whom are Democrats, agreed that strict evaluation is necessary, several members focused on the needs of the refugees.

"We should not close our hearts or our doors to the women, children, and families that are fleeing the Middle East to escape war and the daily terror, violence, and chaos it brings," said Senator Edward Markey, who has urged the United States to accept at least 65,000 Syrian refugees — far more than the 10,000 that President Obama has suggested.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke in the Senate on Tuesday about the need for tougher screening.

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In the meantime, US Representative James McGovern said, refugees must not be abandoned.

"While I agree with Governor Baker that we must be cautious in the wake of the Paris attacks, I have serious concerns about any policy that would shut the door to these Syrian refugees. The people who are fleeing Syria are the very people who are harmed most by terrorism," McGovern, from Worcester, said.

US Representatives Michael Capuano of Somerville and Joseph P. Kennedy 3d of Brookline echoed that appeal.

"We should ensure the safety of all Americans, but we can and should do it while continuing our proud American tradition of welcoming our share of 'tempest-tossed' refugees," Capuano said.

Kennedy also stressed the need for vigilance, but added that "turning our backs on the hundreds of thousands of innocent refugees fleeing that very terror will not accomplish this goal."

US Representatives Niki Tsongas of Lowell and Katherine Clark of Melrose agreed that safety and compassion can coexist.

"I believe we can honor our commitment to safeguarding the American public from terrorists while also providing refuge to some of the world's most vulnerable people, many of whom are fleeing terrorism themselves," Tsongas said.

Clark stated that "our first responsibility must always be the safety and security of the American public, and at the same time we have a moral responsibility to provide refuge to innocent people fleeing terrorism. These two values are not mutually exclusive."


David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMacQuarrie.

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