After Paris attacks, states say they’ll refuse Syrian refugees—but is it legal?
A growing list of mostly Republican Governors sent open letters to the federal government on Monday, announcing that because of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, their states would not accept refugees from Syria, and urging the federal government to cease any efforts to bring Syrian refugees to the United States unless better security procedures could be implemented.
The most updated list, according to CNN, of Governors sending these letters include those representing Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and the lone Democrat on the list thus far, New Hampshire.
The main cause for concern was the fact that at least one of the terrorists involved in the attack on Paris had entered the country by posing as a Syrian refugee, and that a terrorist could take similar advantage of the refugee crisis to enter America. As Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) noted in his letter, “American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to similar deadly danger.”
FBI Director admits feds can’t properly vet the Syrian refugees
There were concerns about the Syrian refugees even before last Friday’s attacks.
Just last month, FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that the federal government lacks the resources to properly conduct background checks on the 10,000 Syrian refugees that the Obama administration had announced at that time would be allowed to enter the United States. Unlike the how the Iraqi refugees were vetted, where our government had a decade’s worth of records in their databases from being involved on the ground there, no such history exists in Syria.
“We can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them,” testified Comey. Syria, on the other hand, is a “different situation.”
Now, with at least 129 dead and hundreds more wounded in Paris, the concerns have become reality regarding the risks posed by unvetted Syrian refugees.
Syrian refugees already in Louisiana
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) was actually the first governor to send a letter to Obama regarding the Syrian refugees, sending his the day after the Paris attacks. The first wave of Syrian refugees had actually already arrived in the United States, arriving in New Orleans last week.
Jindal condemned how Louisiana had been “kept in the dark” about the refugees being placed in his state. “It is irresponsible and severely disconcerting to place individuals, who may have ties to ISIS, in a state without the state’s knowledge or involvement,” he wrote.
After listing several requests for information about the refugees and what efforts (if any) had been made to investigate their backgrounds, Jindal implored the White House to “pause the process of refugees coming to the United States.”
“The threat posed to Texas by ISIS is very real.”
Abbott’s message was similar to Jindal’s: to announce that “the State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris” and to “implore” the president to halt his plans to accept more Syrian refugees. “Effective today, I am directing the Texas Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the State of Texas,” he wrote.
Abbott also cited several examples of specific threats to Texas from ISIS, including the attack in Garland, Texas earlier this year:
The threat posed to Texas by ISIS is very real. ISIS claimed credit last May when two terrorist gunmen launched an attack in Garland, Texas. Less than two weeks later, the FBI arrested an Iraqi-born man in North Texas and charged him with lying to federal agents about traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS. And in 2014, when I served as Texas attorney general, we participated in a Joint Terrorism Task Force that arrested two Austin residents for providing material support to terrorists – including ISIS.
Other elected officials in Texas applauded Abbott’s letter, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who noted that Texas “had a long history of welcoming refugees and displaced people from all over the world,” like the thousands of Louisianans who had been left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, but that the state’s willingness to help refugees could not come “at the expense of the safety and security of our own people.”
Abbott has drawn at least one group protesting his letter. The “Syrian People Solidarity Group” posted a Facebook event announcing a protest scheduled for this Sunday outside the Governor’s Mansion. The purpose of the protest is “to demand that Governor Abbott not use Islamophobic rhetoric when talking about state policy and that refugees from all countries should be welcome here!”
Do the states have the legal authority?
It remains to be seen what pushback will come from the White House. This is, after all, the same Obama administration that sought to enact immigration reform through executive orders when he did not think Congress was moving quickly enough.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) acknowledged the potential legal limitations in his letter, sent to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). After writing that the Florida Department of Children and Families “will not support the requests we have received” to assist with the relocation of several hundred possible Syrian refugees within Florida, Scott noted that the feds still could fund the relocation of the Syrian refugees to Florida even without state support.
According to Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the largest refugee resettlement organization in America, the plenary powers granted under the U.S. Constitution and the 1980 Refugee Act means that the authority whether or not to admit refugees and where to place them lies within the scope of powers granted to the federal government. However, the states still have the ability to make the process far more expensive and arduous.
Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at American University, told CNN, “Legally, states have no authority to do anything because the question of who should be allowed in this country is one that the Constitution commits to the federal government…[but while] a state can’t say it is legally objecting, but it can refuse to cooperate, which makes things much more difficult.”
So, at least as far as the legal issues go, the states have the ability to cut funding for refugee resettlement efforts by their own state agencies, and to direct those agencies to not participate in taking in refugees, but they will need an act of Congress to cut off funding at the federal level, and the states most likely will not be able to block the feds from taking action themselves to bring in Syrian refugees.
The answer may be political
In this specific situation, the best bet is probably not for the states to argue a strictly legal case, but to seek to win the political argument. The negative fallout from Obamacare has decimated Democrats’ ranks at both the state and federal levels. Democrats have lost both the House and the Senate, dozens of Governors and Attorneys General, and hundreds and hundreds of state legislative seats.
With about half the states already stepping forward to say they do not want unvetted Syrian refugees and they will refuse to participate or fund any such efforts, this puts two types of political pressure on the Obama administration. First, with that many states refusing to fund the handling of any Syrian refugees, this becomes a more costly operation for the federal government to manage.
Second, with the 2016 elections rapidly approaching, and so many vulnerable Democrats on the ballot in the states whose Governors want to refuse Syrian refugees, it would not be surprising if Obama got pressure, both openly and behind the scenes, from members of his own party. It is noteworthy that the list of states participating includes both early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as swing states like Florida and Ohio.
This story is, once again, an illustration of the importance of local and state elections. The reason this issue is making news is due in no small part to the increased numbers of Governors who are Republicans. Local elections matter.
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