Governors from all over the U.S. responded to the weekend attacks on Paris with condolences. Several also issued statements saying they would no longer welcome Syrian refugees for settlement in their states. President Obama recently promised to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in the next year, but usually states work with the federal government to get refugees and asylum seekers set up with housing and other services.
Many of the governors argue the screening process for asylum seekers is not stringent enough, and expressed concerns about potential terrorists using the process to enter the country. Even Texas and Michigan, which typically take a relatively high number of refugees, issued statements refusing to accept more.
But, legally, governors can’t actually stop the federal government from settling refugees in their states.
“The states can’t just refuse to house them,” said Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow with The Cato Institute. “It’s the federal government that accepts refugees, processes them, and once they’re legally in the country, the states can’t just line up at their borders preventing the entry of refugees or anyone else.”
But states can certainly let it be known refugees are not welcome.
“What the states can do,” Shapiro said, “is cut off funding or stop their programs by which they are cooperating with federal authorities that settle refugees.”
Those services can include housing assistance, language and job training. With so many states refusing just certain kinds of refugees, it could create what Ralph Steinhardt, who teaches international law at George Washington University, called a “cacophony of state by state regulations”.
“The power to regulate immigration is an exclusively federal power,” Steinhardt said. “I think as a legal principle, you cannot have states making these individual determinations—where does it end?”
Explore last fiscal year’s refugee relocation numbers using the map below. Governors from the states in green have said they would act to bar entry to Syrian refugees.
Source: U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement Map: Tony Wagner
What’s likely to happen, according to several experts, is that the federal government probably won’t bother sending refugees to contrarian states. Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said that means refugees will just relocate, especially if they already have family living in the U.S.
“They would come and join family members anyway as a result of secondary migration because we don’t impose border controls from one state to the other,” said Schwartz. “So… it’s going to be counter-productive because the refugees who travel to these states after they were resettled elsewhere would be coming into these states without any federal benefits and it would create, I think, even more challenges.”
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