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Refugee and Rights Groups Sue Indiana Governor Over Ban on Syrian Resettlement

The lawsuit claims Governor Mike Pence is violating the US Constitution's equal protection clause by discriminating against refugees based on their nationality.
November 24, 2015, 5:15pm
Photo by Chase Stevens/AP

A coalition of civil rights and refugee groups are suing the governor of Indiana over his efforts to block the resettlement of Syrian asylum seekers in his state. The suit is the first to specifically address the legal issues surrounding the nearly two dozen Republican governors who are refusing to admit Syrian refugees into their state in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

The lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Exodus of Refugee Immigration, and the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration on Monday, claims that Governor Mike Pence is violating the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause by discriminating against refugees based on their nationality.


"Decisions concerning immigration and refugee resettlement are exclusively the province of the federal government," ACLU of Indiana's legal director, Ken Falk, said in a statement. "Attempts to pre-empt that authority violate both equal protection and civil rights laws and intrude on authority that is exclusively federal."

While the federal government has overarching authority on resettling refugees, and has so far refused to back down on promises to bring 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers to the US within a year, governors of individual states can interfere with funding associated with resettlement.

Related:The GOP Is Completely Freaking Out About Syrian Refugees After the Paris Attacks

In the legal complaint filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana late Monday, the plaintiffs claim that Pence's decision to direct all state agencies to "suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana," financially damaged a refugee assistance non-profit organization, called Exodus, by stemming the flow of federal finances to resettlement assistance. Exodus uses the funds, which are channeled through state agencies to provide a range of services, including providing housing, food, clothing, and English language classes to refugees.

"The actions taken by Governor Pence to block Syrian refugees from entering the State of Indiana are not in line with Hoosier or American values," said Carleen F. Miller, Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc. executive director. "Indiana is a welcoming state known for our hospitality. History will judge us in this moment – whether we take the moral stand for victims of war and persecution in their time of need or reject our core principles by giving in to fear and terror."


Three days after the coordinated attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people, Pence issued a statement on November 16 saying that "Indiana has a long tradition of opening our arms and homes to refugees from around the world but, as governor, my first responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of all Hoosiers."

"Effective immediately, I am directing all state agencies to suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved," he said.

Related: This Lone Democratic Governor Is Calling For the US to Reject Syrian Refugees

At least 23 other governors, including one Democrat, promised to enact similar policies around the same time, spurring a fierce debate between politicians and refugee advocates who argued that the country's current system is already built around a stringent and multi-layered security screening process.

Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine voluntary agencies contracted to oversee refugee resettlement in the US, warned that governors could act on their declared rejections of Syrian refugees in a number of potentially damaging and unlawful ways, including by limiting social services "that Syrians are entitled to legally." Such a move "could be challenged in court," she said, adding that the broader repercussions of banning future refugees could also potentially "create extraordinary difficulties in the resettlement process" for existing asylum seekers.


"If the governor wants to bar a mother or child from joining family legally residing in a state, it means that they will be likely resettled in a different part of the US," Hartke said. "The importance of family being together is one of those American values of resettling refugees."

Hartke's warning appeared to actualize this week, just five days after the US House overwhelmingly passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015 that seeks to put a hold on the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the US.  The Senate has yet to vote on the bill, which President Barack Obama has vowed to veto.

Related: The UN Is Warning Countries It's a Terrible Idea to Stop Accepting Syrian Refugees

The lawsuit, if successful, could set a precedence to prevent other governors from preventing the resettlement of existing refugees to their states.

"This lawsuit is calling out Governor Pence on his unconstitutional bluff," said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy legal director of ACLU's immigrants' rights project. "He does not have the power to pick and choose between which lawfully admitted refugees he is willing to accept. Singling out Syrian refugees for exclusion from Indiana is not only ethically wrong, it is unconstitutional. Period."

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