Three faith-based refugee resettlement organizations are suing the U.S. government in an attempt to stop President Donald Trump’s executive order giving state and local politicians the ability to block refugee resettlement within their jurisdictions.
Church World Service, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit, announced they are filing a preliminary injunction motion in a Maryland federal court against Trump’s Sept. 26 order enhancing state and local involvement in refugee resettlement.
The organizations argue that Trump overstepped his authority by giving state and local officials “veto power” on refugee resettlement inside their borders. The nonprofits are represented by the legal group International Refugee Assistance Project.
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“Congress has been clear. State and local governments are to be consulted in decisions about where refugees are placed in the United States,” said IRAP senior litigation staff attorney Melissa Keaney on a press call Thursday.
“But the Refugee Act establishes Congress’ unmistakable intent that states and localities were given a voice but not a veto where refugees would be resettled.”
The president's executive order requires refugee resettlement agencies to obtain written consent from all localities and states in which they plan to resettle refugees.
If such written consent can’t be obtained, the groups argue, it could prevent resettlement agencies from maintaining local affiliate offices that provide services to refugees already in those areas.
The plaintiffs, who are among nine nonprofit groups authorized to resettle refugees in the U.S., contend that the State Department placed an “immense and unlawful burden” on them by making it their responsibility to seek approval from state and local government leaders.
They claim that the requirement “conflicts with the statutory scheme enacted by Congress and core principles of federalism.”
“This executive order would allow the political decision of a single elected official to arbitrarily block a successful public-private partnership for local support for refugee resettlement,” argued Erol Kekic, senior vice president of CWS Immigration and Refugee Program.
The lawsuit also charges that the executive order is part of an attempt by the Trump administration to “dismantle” the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Under the Trump administration, the annual U.S. refugee resettlement ceiling has been decreased to record lows since the passing of the Refugee Act in 1980.
Although some refugee resettlement organizations have called for a ceiling of 95,000 refugees to be resettled in the U.S. in the fiscal year 2020, the cap for the fiscal year 2020 has been set at 18,000.
In the month of October, no refugees were resettled in the U.S. as the restarting of the refugee admissions process for the new fiscal year was delayed three times.
Resettlements have resumed in September. However, Keaney said that consent from local and state officials will be required beginning on June 1, 2020, and agencies must submit proposals to the State Department by Jan. 21, 2020.
“They threaten to deprive local communities that want to welcome refugees of the opportunity to do so,” the lawsuit reads. “And they threaten to systematically dismantle the organizations … that have spent decades developing networks, expertise, and resources to carry out the American ideal of welcoming refugees.”
The lawsuit contends that refugees who have waited years could be blocked from being resettled in localities where their U.S.-based family is located if such approval is not provided.
“Imagine coming to this country after years of violence, persecution and desperation, only to be told you cannot join your family because the state or city must clear new political hurdles in order to welcome you,” LIRS President and CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah said.
“Imagine being part of a welcoming community — where both the local economy and its cultural heritage are bolstered by the presence of refugees — only to have the door slammed shut by xenophobic and bureaucratic confusion. This dystopian vision could become our American reality if this unconstitutional executive order is allowed to stand.”
Jack Amick, the director of global migration at the United Methodist Committee on Relief, argued on the press call that the executive order “inhibits our ability to freely practice our religion.”
“We often let our actions speak,” Amick said. “Assisting those who seek refuge is an outward intangible sign of God’s grace for all. It is a sacramental act. The executive order requiring local government officials to give consent before congregations can engage in this important spiritual practice of welcoming the stranger is ludacris and arrogant.”
It is unclear as to what states and localities would not permit refugee resettlement under the order. In 2015, more than half the nation’s governors (all but one were Republican) said they oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states.
“We have reason to be concerned that they will, in fact, opt-out of the refugee program, or not opt-in,” Kekic said. “We are very concerned that some states will act on that.”
“It is not just the governor who needs to give consent,” he continued. “It is also the person who manages county or county-like structures, or in some instances mayors. If one of these people decides to deny access to refugees, the entire thing falls apart.”
A handful of states including Tennessee, Indiana, Alabama and Texas have brought lawsuits against the U.S. refugee resettlement program as recently as 2015.
“I think [that] provides some credibility to the fear that we have in terms of failure to get consent to resettle,” Keaney explained.
The Trump administration contends that consent from local and state officials will help ensure that communities have the resources to integrate refugees successfully.
Yet, the resettlement agencies contend that federal law already requires federal agencies to make a decision on refugee resettlement based on several factors that include the proportion of refugees to the general population in the area, availability of employment, private housing, transportation and public and private resources and the likelihood of refugees becoming self-sufficient in that area.
“We are not saying that [state and local officials] should not have some say,” Keaney said. “In fact, they do have some say. That is the process that Congress designed. But what we can’t have is President Trump circumventing Congress’ laws and constitutional principles by giving them the ultimate say or decision-making power.”
Kekic added that there already is a process designed for state and local officials to participate in the decision-making process.
“There is a state employee in each state that participates in the program whose title is refugee coordinator,” Kekic explained. “That person participates in all the meetings and finally blesses the numbers that have been proposed by our local offices across the country, and the State Department reviews and approves for resettlement at that location.”
Kekic fears that allowing local or state politicians to have veto power would enable refugee resettlement to come down to a “political decision rather than a practical one.”
“This is a departure from doing the process the way it was designed,” Kekic said. “[It] allow[s] for very direct participation of the state’s [leaders] who have been elected — regardless of their position or how many people they represent — to say they will no longer accept refugees in their town even if synagogues, churches, volunteers, schools and others would oppose that decision.”
HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said resettlement agencies are already required to consult with state and local authorities four times over the course of every year and document those consultations.
“Those [consultations] are going on a constant basis,” he said.
Additionally, he asserted that the executive order would prohibit resettlement agencies from ensuring that refugees are placed in communities where they want to be, have opportunities for employment and have the best chance of thriving.
“The refugees would then have to go to [these localities] on their own expense. It will mean that we will have wasted the federal government’s resources trying to set them up in a community where we know that they will not stay,” said Hetfield.
“Every year, when we propose our placement plans, we have to include information about the availability of housing, the availability of employment, about the availability of mass transit. … These are already a part of the process and they won’t be part of the process at all if we can’t resettle in those states or localities anymore.”