More than 30 U.S. states refusing Syrian refugees on 'shaky legal ground'

Governors, mostly Republicans and representing more than half of U.S. states, say they will refuse to accept Syrian refugees. But the legal grounds for that kind of action is pretty murky.

In wake of Paris attacks, governors of at least 31 U.S. states announce plans to bar Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee cries by one of her children as she arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos. Amid the refugee crisis and in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, 30 U.S. governors have said they will refuse an influx of Syrian refugees until the U.S. reviews its refugee screening and security processes. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

The governors of at least 31 mostly Republican states have announced they will bar Syrian asylum-seekers from attempting to start new lives in their communities.

But the tough-sounding pledges — coming just days after 129 people were murdered by Islamic militants in France — may not have much of a legal foundation to stand on, according to Washington authorities on immigration and refugee issues.

"It's very shaky legal ground," said Robert McCaw, the government affairs officer with the Council on American–Islamic Relations on Capitol Hill. "The thing is, these governors don't really have any legal means to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees."

To date, governors of the majority of America's states — including such southern bastions of conservatism as Georgia, Alabama and Florida, as well as northern states like Michigan, Illinois and Maine — have pulled in the welcome mat, saying Syrian refugees pose a security risk that must be taken into account.

Their tough line also mirrors that which some Republican presidential candidates are taking in the wake of the Paris attacks. But immigration isn't a state-determined issue here, it is a federal one.

U.S. refugee admissions are announced by the State Department every year on Oct. 1 as part of the White House's presidential determination for allowing refugees in a given fiscal year.

State governors thus do not have the authority to set limits on who or what the refugee influx should look like, said Westy Egmont, director of the Immigration Integration Lab at Boston College.

"Any refugee welcome to the U.S. has legal status, and therefore the freedom of movement within all 50 states," Egmont said. "We don't have borders between New Hampshire and Vermont, or New York and Pennsylvania. People are coming and they get to choose where they choose to be."

'The American way'

The U.S. has not taken in many Syrian refugees in recent years. But in September, in the midst of the influx of asylum seekers making their way to Europe, the Obama administration agreed to accept 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2016. 

And now, while opposition is mounting in the wake of the Paris killings, any challenge to the U.S. constitutional ideal allowing "freedom of movement" amounts to what Egmont describes as an attack of another sort.

"It's an attack on the American way," he said. "The reality is that this is unprecedented. It's virtually the first attack mounted by states on the enormously successful U.S. refugee program."

The majority of the refugees flowing in from Syria don't fit the profile of someone who might engage in some kind of armed conflict, Egmont added. About 50 per cent are children, 30 per cent are women and about 20 per cent are men.

In the case of Syrian refugees, many are presumed to be fleeing the very same violent extremism that Western countries also fear.

For his part, McCaw views the anti-refugee rhetoric as little more than politicking and opportunism.

Among the voices opposing Syrian refugees in their states were two Republican presidential candidates — Ohio Governor John Kasich and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who dropped out of the race on Tuesday.

"This is running on a certain streak of Islamophobia that we've already seen in the presidential primaries," McCaw said. "It's a shame these governors would use a tragedy like Paris for their own political gain."

'Ripe for lawsuits'

While Egmont said governors shouldn't be able to stop the inflow of refugees, "they can create an unhappy political environment and arouse negative public sentiment."

The best that individual states could hope to achieve, McCaw suggested, would be to undercut their own federal funding for refugee resettlement programs. 

We are a welcoming environment. We're very loud and proud of that, but as far as our request for additional [refugees], we want that to be put on hold while this review is complete.— Dave Murray, deputy press secretary for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder

But even that would prove "incredibly problematic" for all refugees, said Yasmine Taeb, a lobbyist on human rights and civil liberties with the Quaker lobby group Friends Committee on National Legislation.

"If that were to happen, it's ripe for lawsuits," she said. "They're not allowed to interfere with this federal program funding that should have been allocated to these state agencies."

Taeb worries that if the governors carry through with their threats, state resettlement agencies could shutter completely.

Michigan and Alabama were reportedly the first two states to announce plans to refuse entry to Syrian refugees.

Dave Murray, deputy press secretary for Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, told CBC News that Snyder wanted "to put a pause on our request for additional refugees" pending a review of U.S. screening and security procedures. 

Not saying never

"We've never said, 'No more refugees' or 'No more Syrians,'" he said. "We are a welcoming environment. We're very loud and proud of that, but as far as our request for additional [refugees], we want that to be put on hold while this review is complete." 

Michigan governor Rick Snyder has requested a freeze on welcoming more Syrian refugees to his state, pending a review of U.S. refugee screening procedures in the wake of the Paris attacks. (Danielle Duval, Jackson Citizen Patriot/Associated Press)

About 4,000 refugees were resettled in Michigan last year, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. Detroit is also home to a large Middle Eastern population.

Vetting of qualified refugees in the U.S. is already arduous enough, said Sarnata Reynolds, senior adviser on human rights with Refugees International. The years-long process involves screening by Homeland Security, the Department of Defence and the FBI.

"If someone with ill will, or a terrorist, would go through a process of three years to get to the United States just to commit a terrorist act, that's quite a long-term plan to do that," Reynolds said. "We haven't seen a U.S. program used in that way."

Civil rights lawyer Jenifer Wicks, who works with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that "while the Congress establishes rules and regulations concerning rights and privileges of refugees, no state can add or take away from the force of such federal law."

Wicks said that if states decided to refuse federal money for refugee resettlement programs, that, too, would open up a host of legal challenges. 

Either way, McCaw can't see how a state could deny services to legal residents, noting that even undocumented citizens can have access to public schools, obtain IDs and emergency services at hospitals.

"It's just hard to see how services would be denied, especially if somebody was admitted legally by the federal government and given authorized status," he said. "I mean, do these governors really want to declare a war on refugees?

"Because that's not how America works. We're supposed to be the land of refugees."