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Analysis: Hutchinson's opposition latest in Arkansas' mixed history on welcoming refugees


LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Gov. 's opposition to locating any Syrian refugees in Arkansas is the latest chapter in the state's mixed history on welcoming those who have been displaced by war, natural disaster and other upheavals.

The Republican governor and former Homeland Security official joined a chorus of GOP-led states fighting efforts to resettle the refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks. Though he said there aren't any plans to relocate refugees in Arkansas, Hutchinson said he'll direct state officials to resist any efforts by the federal government to do so.

"Many of the Syrian refugees are fleeing violence in their own country but Europe, Asia or Africa are logically the best places for resettlement or for temporary asylum," Hutchinson said last week. "Syria is a war torn country and the United States will support our European friends in fighting ISIL in Syria and elsewhere; however, this is not the right strategy for the United States to become a permanent place of relocation."

Hutchinson's stance is a contrast to that of former Gov. David Pryor, who in 1975 allowed 55,000 Vietnamese refugees to stay at Fort Chaffee. Pryor at the time welcomed the first of the refugees with a brass band.

"As I welcomed them, I also tried to prepare them," Pryor wrote in his 2008 autobiography. "If they encountered unfriendliness or hostility, they should try to understand: like them, we are facing unknown circumstances ourselves. They should know that outspoken critics did not represent the majority of people in Arkansas or America."

The opposition to welcoming those displaced from Syria also echoes the Cuban refugee crisis that almost doomed former President 's political career 35 years ago. More than 125,000 Cuban refugees crossed the Florida Strait in 1980 and one out of five — roughly 21,000 — ended up at Fort Chaffee in western Arkansas.

A riot among the refugees figured prominently in the campaign for governor that year, and first-term Gov. lost the election to Republican Frank White. White ran ads focused on the refugee crisis that accused Clinton of caring more about former President than the people of his own state. It didn't help that Clinton was also fending off criticism over an increase in auto licensing fees.

"I was sinking in the quicksand of Cubans and car tags," Clinton, who defeated White two years later, wrote in his 2004 autobiography.

Hutchinson said the state's experience with Vietnamese and Cuban refugees partly played into his stance. He said the rioting of the Cuban refugees showed the need for better background checks of those entering the country, something he says he's not assured of with Syria's refugees.

"Just because the federal government assures us there's an adequate vetting process, I'm not convinced," he said.

Former Gov. , however, saw his political stock rise with his decision to accept thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than 15,000 refugees flowed into the state, with Huckabee coordinating a plan that called for housing them at church camps around Arkansas. Huckabee has joined other Republican presidential hopefuls in opposing the flow of Syrian refugees to the U.S., but he's touted his state's handling of Katrina evacuees during his White House bid.

"I don't think any of us anticipated the level of devastation, the number of evacuees or the length of time we'd be looking at," Huckabee said at the time. "Right now we're truly blessed to be able to extend friendship and warmth and hospitality to them."

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at

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