- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that a new level of fear has gripped Tennesseans following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

“People in Tennessee are scared - maybe as scared as anything I’ve seen,” the Republican governor said in a speech to the Nashville Rotary Club.

Haslam last week called on the federal government to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee unless state agencies can become involved in the vetting process. The governor said there’s been no indication so far that President Barack Obama’s administration has any interest in giving states a role in background checks.

Haslam did not directly respond to a reporter’s question after the speech about what sort of expertise state agencies such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or the Department of Safety and Homeland Security could bring to the vetting process.

Later on Monday, a few hundred protesters assembled on the plaza across from the state Capitol to signal their support for Syrian refugees. Hannah Fletch-Page said she was prompted to organize the event following comments from Haslam and other governors that she said suggest “we would close our doors on these refugees.”

“I’m personally Christian and I feel like Jesus has told us to welcome the stranger and welcome the refugee,” said Fletch-Page, as others waved signs, held candles and wrote messages on white balloons.

“Tennessee has always been a welcoming committee for refugees,” she said. “I’m really proud of that. And I don’t want that to change.”

Haslam said he’s been both thanked and assailed since calling for the moratorium.

“People would come up saying, ‘Governor, thank you so much for saving us from those Syrian refugees.’ I’d say, ‘It’s really not like that,’ and try to explain,” Haslam said in the Rotary speech.

“Others said, ‘I can’t believe how cold and heartless you are, that you would turn away Syrian refugees,’” he said. “I’d say, ‘It’s really not like that,’ either.”

Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the governor’s office received more than 3,300 calls about the subject early last week, and that just 24 of them supported the continued placement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee.

Haslam said conversations with the White House have allayed some of his concerns about the 20-step vetting process that can take two years to complete.

“To be honest with you, the more I learn about the vetting process, it is a pretty good process,” Haslam said.

Another recent talk with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice alerted him to the problem of having refugees wait too long before passing through the vetting program.

“As a country that’s worried about terror and people radicalizing in certain situations, leaving folks in refugee camps for three to five years will only exacerbate that problem,” Haslam said Rice told him.

Haslam chided some news media outlets for mischaracterizing his statement about seeking a suspension of Syrian resettlement in Tennessee as meaning he wanted to keep the refugees out of the state under all circumstances.

“Words matter,” Haslam said. “And that’s why when we put out a statement on that, we were very careful with our words.”

Not everyone agrees that Haslam is being entirely clear about his position on the matter.

Wade Munday, the executive director of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to immigrants and their families, urged Haslam to publicly support the vetting process already in place.

“The governor is right: Tennesseans are scared and words matter,” Munday said. “He can use his words to reassure Tennesseans and other Republican governors that the refugee vetting process is a good one.”

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