In what seemed like a domino effect, governors in more than 15 states have suggested over the past 48 hours that they will no longer admit Syrian refugees.
Their reactions have come in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, which left at least 129 dead, and revelations that one of the suspects in the attacks was found with a Syrian passport (though its authenticity has yet to be confirmed).
But a number of immigration-law experts say that even if a state refuses to cooperate with the federal government, governors won’t technically be able to bar the resettlement of refugees in their states.
“States have absolutely no legal authority to bar someone who is granted refugee status from entering their state since it’s federal law that determines whether someone is a refugee,” Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Business Insider on Monday.
Officials at other resettlement agencies agreed.
“Governors and state officials do not have the capability to prevent a refugee who is here and admitted lawfully to the U.S. from residing in their state. It is not something they can do,” Lucy Carrigan, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee told The Washington Post.
Since the governors of Alabama and Michigan called for President Barack Obama to halt admission of refugees to the US over the weekend, many states have followed in their footsteps — to varying degrees.
Some states, like Louisiana and New Hampshire, have requested that the Obama administration stop admitting refugees into the US, but have not said that they will take explicit steps to block refugees from settling in their states. Others, like Illinois, have said outright that they are examining legal ways to halt the resettlement of refugees within their borders.
Chen told Business Insider that it’s unclear how states could block resettlement, as the federal government has overwhelming authority over immigration enforcement and refugee resettlement.
The state mostly plays a facilitating role in helping refugees settle, oftentimes directing federal money toward local non-profits and religious-aid groups that then use that money to provide limited assistance for resettlement. Chen said that if states refuse to direct money to organisations to carry out resettlement, they could find themselves in contract violations.
Further, some experts contend that the refugee-application system is incredibly slow and rigorous and argue it would be an unwieldy system to exploit.
Background checks — which involve biometric screenings, in-person interviews, and in some cases screenings by multiple US intelligence agencies — and health screenings for refugees seeking asylum from conflicts in the Middle East often keep potential refugees waiting for years before they reach the US.
“Refugee status is the single most difficult way to come to the US. It makes no sense for a terrorist to try to use the resettlement process for an attack,” Dave Bier, president of the libertarian advocacy group Niskanen Center, wrote in a blog post on Monday
Chen added: “It is extremely unlikely that someone who is a terrorist will be sent through the refugee resettlement program.
“It takes a great deal of time, and it wouldn’t make sense for someone who is a terrorist for someone to go through that process. There are going to be easier ways for a terrorist to try to infiltrate, rather than going through the refugee resettlement program.”
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