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Tennessee's Republican Leader Wants To Close The Door To Syrian Refugees

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some Tennessee officials want to take refugees from Syria and turn them into refugees from Tennessee. They've spoken out in the debate over Syrian refugees. Very few have been accepted into the United States, and most of the debate revolves around whether to accept more. But in Tennessee, one lawmaker wants to rid his state of the few who are already there. Here's Chas Sisk of member station WPLN.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Glen Casada is the leader of the Tennessee House's Republican caucus, so when he makes a suggestion, other lawmakers tend to listen. His latest proposal - put Syrian refugees under surveillance, or perhaps use the Tennessee National Guard to take them into custody and send them back to immigration authorities.

GLEN CASADA: I think we should not limit our response. I'm sounding the alarm. Terrorists are here. What do we do? I'm appalled at the naivety of some of my fellow citizens.

SISK: Casada's view may be an extreme, but in Tennessee, many Republicans want to put a halt to refugee resettlement. The State Department has placed large numbers of refugees in Tennessee since the early 1990s. But after last weekend's attacks in Paris, Casada and others say they're no longer welcome.

CASADA: ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups have and are infiltrating the Syrian refugee population. So when we let them in, we are letting terrorists in.

SISK: Tennessee receives more refugees as share of population than New York, California or Illinois. Many that come here are from the Middle East. Few, though, have been Syrians - only 42 since the war began in 2011. That number is expected to grow to a few hundred over the next year, says Holly Johnson, the state refugee coordinator for Catholic Charities, unless statements like Casada's convince federal authorities to send Syrians elsewhere.

HOLLY JOHNSON: The State Department certainly wants to resettle refugees in communities that will welcome them, and Tennessee has always been that sort of place. Every community where refugees are resettled welcomed them. I would hope that would continue to be the case.

SISK: Many are placed first on along Nolensville Road, a busy corridor near downtown Nashville. Outside an apartment building, Fahed Nakshou is smoking a cigarette.

Nakshou is 32 - heavyset with neatly cropped hair and a trimmed beard. He was a barber in the Syrian city of Homs. Then fighting forced his family to flee into Jordan. He, his wife and their two children, ages 4 and 2, arrived in Nashville in August. A friend translates for them.

Have you encountered any kind of hostility in the United States or any hardship?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

FAHED NAKSHOU: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said he knew, like, you know, people spoke good about American people, but he didn't realize until he came and saw with his own eyes how good the American people are.

SISK: Even before the Paris attacks, Nakshou had little expectation that his extended family would ever join him in Nashville. But he says life is so much better in Tennessee. He's hopeful more Syrians can come.

If they were to say no more could come, like, what - how do you think that would impact your life?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

SISK: Nakshou shakes his head and rises from the couch. He goes down the hallway. Finally, his wife, Khuloud, answers.

KHULOUD NAKSHOU: (Through interpreter) It's really hard because, you know, even the Jordanians themselves that are living in Jordan, they're not living the best life anyway.

SISK: A few minutes later, Fahed rejoins the interview.

F. NAKSHOU: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He says he just felt for the people there. He wasn't even upset about, like, you know, anything. He just - when we were talking about people there and how they would just tell them, oh, we will throw you in the camp, like, he just felt for the people there.

SISK: The Nakshous are still optimistic their new home will be more welcoming than the previous one. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville.

INSKEEP: Listening to every voice in this giant moving story, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.