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Is It Legal for the Governors of More Than a Dozen States to Refuse to Accept Syrian Refugees?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, a group of mostly Republican governors is saying they won't take on any refugees from the war-torn nation—but experts say that they don't even have the power to do that.
A boat full of migrants attempting to reach Europe. Photo via the Flickr account of the Irish Defence Forces

In September, amid headlines calling attention to the horrific plight of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere, President Barack Obama announced a plan to welcome more huddled masses to American soil. The idea of taking in 10,000 Syrians over the next year was embraced, to an extent, by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who said he was working with the federal government to accommodate the influx.


"Isn't that part of being a good Michigander?" he told reporters at the time.

Then the Paris attacks happened, and what it means to be a good Michigander apparently changed.

Snyder joined the governors of more than a dozen states, most of them Republicans like him, in publicly declaring that they would not be accepting any refugees from Syria. Doing so, they claim, will expose their citizens to danger because Islamic State–affiliated fighters could be posing as refugees to gain entry to America.

"After full consideration of this weekend's attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program," Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley wrote in a press release that dropped on Sunday. "As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm's way."

More on the US political response to the Paris attacks

Many of the objections to welcoming refugees stem from the notion that one of the Paris attackers was using a Syrian passport, but a French official told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that the document was fake. Even if a refugee was involved in terrorism, critics have questioned the idea that governors even have the authority to block the resettlement of refugees based on their nationality.

To learn more about the legal and moral issues of keeping refugees out of certain states, I called up Kathleen Newland, who is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and directs the group's work on refugee resettlement.


VICE: First thing first: Who decides when and from where we will take refugees?
Kathleen Newland: There are a number of different federal agencies that are involved in the refugee resettlement process. The main ones are the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House. The president decides how many refugees overall would be admitted to the US in a given year and then is required to have a consultation with Congress on that number where it's explained. And then the State Department decides how many refugees from each region will be taken and works with agencies overseas to process and screen refugees. The UN refugee agency will refer cases for resettlement to different countries including the United States and if the US decides to accept those referrals as potential resettlement cases, then it starts its own independent screening and vetting process to make sure they are indeed refugees under US law and there's no reason to exclude them on national security grounds or public health grounds.

The crisis in Syria has been going on for a long time. How many refugees from the area has the US taken in?
Since the uprising started in Syria in 2011, we have resettled fewer than 2,000 people. Taking [that number] to 10,000 is the intention in the next fiscal year, and Secretary of State John Kerry has implied that number will be even higher in the coming years, which is in part a reaction to seeing the huge flows of refugees going to Europe. The Europeans of course don't have the option of screening them, as we do. It's a recognition of the level of desperation in the counties surrounding Syria who have been taking on refugees for years now. It's a way of showing our solidarity and humanitarian leadership.


How does the new number of 10,000 compare to what other countries are doing in Europe?
It's hard to make a comparison with Europe, because the Syrians in Europe have arrived as asylum-seekers and have not been resettled. So they haven't been through any prior screening or vetting or identification of who needs the resettlement. So ours is a much more controlled process, and we're protected by geography.

I guess I didn't even consider the difference between asylum seeking and resettlement. Can you explain the difference?
That's really fundamental. The asylum-seekers are people who just, by hook or by crook, just turn up under their own power—like taking a raft across the Aegean and landing on a Greek island.

But people can apply for asylum in the United States for persecution and come here legally—not just on a raft.
Yes. But if you're Syrian it's going to be very hard to get here to do that. We had about the same number—about 1,800, or maybe about 2,000, Syrians—who have been granted asylum since the uprising began. Those were probably mostly people who were already here when the trouble started and were on business trips, or visiting people, or were here on scholarships. That sort of thing.

Got it. So if someone in Syria wants to come here, what's the first step?
The very first step is they have to register with the UN refugee agency in whatever country they've gained first asylum. They have to have left Syria and then registered as a refugee.


Does everyone get accepted past that first round if they pass basic security checks? Or are people prioritized based on how bad their situation is?
The latter. The UN refugee agency will prioritize people based on their vulnerability, based on whether or not they're in danger in the country of first asylum, or have a medical issue that can't be addressed there. There are a million different reasons they might be considered particularly vulnerable. I mean, I met with a family recently who had been in Lebanon for two years before being resettled with five small children, not allowed to work. Just a very, very insecure situation.

What happens next?
After you register with UNHCR, they get referred to resettlement to a particular country. So far I think they've referred about 17, 18, maybe 19,000 Syrians to the United States. Fewer than 2,000 had arrived by the end of the last fiscal year. It takes a long time to process people. We put them through so many layers of security; every refugee has to have a face-to-face interview with the Department of Homeland Security. They're compared against three or four security databases. They have to tell their story again and again. And then if the United States has, in its allocation for refugee resettlement, a place for them, they go through their medical history, their travel arrangements. This process usually takes 18 to 24 months to complete.


Who decides which state they go to?
There are nine national agencies, non-governmental agencies, that work with the State Department to help refugees get settled in their new home once they get here. Those nine agencies and the State Department get together in a group called the Allocations Committee and they decide who goes where based on the capacity of the place to absorb them. They consider things like the ability of affordable housing, availability of jobs, a whole variety of things.

What happens when they arrive? Just "good luck," or are there job-training programs, language classes, etc.?
That's what the nine national resettlement agencies do. They have a grant—it's a very small grant—from the state department for each refugee. It's like $1,000 a head. The resettlement agencies help them to pay first month's rent, to get furniture, to get appropriate clothing, to stock the refrigerator. They get them initially set up and then also try to help them find a job. There's a very heavy emphasis on getting them into employment early, even if they can't speak English. Even if they're qualified as a nuclear physicist and the only job they can do with their language ability is cleaning restaurants or hotel rooms.

What does it mean when the governors claim that the refugees aren't welcome there? Is this just meaningless banter?
They don't have the ability to deny them entry. We have freedom of movement in this country. But they can not cooperate with the national resettlement program and that certainly makes it much harder.

What could they do to effectively block refugees from entering their respective states, and would it be legal?
Well, in one case a few years ago, there was one state that froze the contracts that were federally funded for refugee services in that particular state. So that froze programs like English-language instruction and job training and after-school programs for kids. So, they're just obstructive tactics. The governor of Texas, I've gathered, has instructed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission's refugee resettlement program not to participate in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Texas. Now, to me that's unconstitutional, that kind of discrimination against a particular group, so it could well be challenged. But it would be obstruction rather than legal ability to block people.

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