REUTERS – U.S. President Barack Obama urged Americans to show generosity to Syrian refugees in a Thanksgiving message on Thursday, reminding them that the Pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were themselves fleeing persecution.
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Obama's plan to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria has drawn political criticism since attacks in Paris two weeks ago that killed 130 people, and which Islamic State claimed responsibility for. The United States is leading an international coalition fighting the group in Syria and Iraq.
"Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims - men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families," Obama said.
Since the Paris attacks, Americans have identified terrorism as the nation's top problem, Reuters-Ipsos polling shows.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to suspend the refugee plan and intensify refugee screening measures before lawmakers left Washington for the Thanksgiving break. Several Republican candidates for the November 2016 presidential election have also said refugees pose a risk.
Obama has argued refugees will be well screened. "People should remember that no refugee can enter our borders until they undergo the highest security checks of anyone traveling to the United States," he said in his Thanksgiving address.
The U.S. president has vowed to veto the House refugee bill. But the White House has said it is open to working with lawmakers on tighter security measures for visitors from 38 countries who do not need a visa for short U.S. visits.
In his address, the president quoted from letters he had received from Americans welcoming Syrian refugees.
"One woman from Pennsylvania wrote me to say, 'Money is tight for us in my household... But I have a guest room. I have a pantry full of food. We can do this,'" Obama said. "Another woman from Florida told me her family's history dates back to the Mayflower - and she said that welcoming others is part of 'what it means to be an American.'"
On Thursday, the mayor of Louise, Mississippi told CNN it is welcoming refugees from war-torn countries, including Syria, to send a positive message instead of one driven by fear. Ruffin Smith said so far no refugees have arrived: "We've made ourselves available. I feel from a small town we've done what we can do."