Can states say ‘no’ to Syrian refugees?

Andy Uhler Nov 16, 2015

After the news that one of the terrorists accused of plotting the Paris attacks held a Syrian passport, more than a dozen governors from states have issued statements and written letters to President Obama saying they will accept no more Syrian refugees in their states. This comes just months after President Obama promised to settle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. next year.

But immigration is a federal issue. Do these governors’ statements mean those states won’t be taking in any more refugees?

We looked into the facts:

Do these governors have a legal leg to stand on?

Probably not. In fact, in 2012, in Arizona v the United States, the Supreme Court upheld that any immigration matter was strictly a federal issue. Justice Anthony Kennedy said states like Arizona have the right to express frustration with an influx of immigrants, but not allowing entry to a particular state would undermine federal law. The case was widely seen as Arizona and other states trying to make it more difficult for Mexicans to gain citizenship.

Ralph Steinhardt, law professor at George Washington University, said governors don’t have the authority to make good on these claims because the U.S. is party to a number of international treaties. 

“To the extent that large numbers of governors place the United States in breach of its international obligations under refugee law, it’s clearly preempted by the constitution,” he said. “You cannot have any number of states threatening to put the United States in violation of international treaty obligation.”

How do you get refugee status in the U.S.?

Most, if not all, Syrians applying for refugee status in the United States will be applying outside of the U.S. That’s the distinction between refugees and those seeking asylum. Asylum is sought within America’s borders. Syrians would also likely be living in a third country and seeking refugee status in the U.S. from there because the U.S. Embassy in Syria was closed in February of 2012. Most people seeking refugee status work through the United National High Commissioner for Refugees or a local non-profit based in the U.S.

How long will it take a Syrian refugee to be resettled in the U.S.?

A while. Elissa Steglich, professor at the immigration clinic at the University of Texas Law School, said the overseas process for Syrians seeking to be resettled in the United States takes, on average, at least a couple of years and sometimes even a decade.

“In that process there are background checks,” she said. “Oftentimes, the refugees who arrive for resettlement have already been recognized refugees and living in third countries for two-plus years.”

Syrians made up only two percent of the refugees resettled in the U.S. last year. The top three: Myanmar, Iraq and Somalia.

Where do refugees end up?

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.

Data from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, map by Tony Wagner

What gets you refugee status?

The federal government annually establishes the number and type of refugees the country will admit. It also determines the number of refugees it will admit from a given region. There are three levels of priority for the United States to grant refugee status.

Priority 1: Cases for whom resettlement seems to be the appropriate durable solution, who are referred to the U.S. refugee program by UNHCR, a U.S. embassy, or a designated NGO.

Priority 2: Cases involving special humanitarian concern to the United States. It includes specific national, religious, ethnic and other groups.

Priority 3: Cases involving family reunification. This would include spouses, unmarried children under 21, and green card holders.

The Obama administration could establish a Priority 2 (P-2) group for Syrians, but hasn’t done so. Soviet nationals and Cuban dissidents were P-2 refugees in the past. Iraqis are currently P-2 refugees. Last year, minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were granted P-2 group status.

Where do refugees settle in the U.S.?

Refugees tend to settle in states and cities where there is already a community of people from their homeland. Agencies also tend to relocate refugees in communities where there is a demonstrated level of resources for resettlement. States with low unemployment and greater job opportunities also tend to see more refugees.

About 200 Syrian refugees have relocated to Michigan this year, as that state boasts one of the largest Middle Eastern populations in the country. Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, had been encouraging the resettlement of refugees in the region throughout the year. This week, he suspended the campaign.

Something that may come as a surprise given the state’s policies on immigration is that Texas accepts the most refugees in the nation. Last year, Houston had nearly 2,000 resettlements. That state’s governor, Greg Abbott, was one of the first to write a letter to President Obama telling him the state will not be accepting Syrian refugees. 

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