Federal Judge Halts Trump Limits on Refugee Resettlement

Supporters of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, N.D., on Dec. 9. 2019. (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

(CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing an executive order that allows state and local governments to turn refugees away.

In his 31-page opinion granting a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Maryland said it is first important to understand which people the court is referring to when it uses the term “refugees.”

Those people do not apply for resettlement directly to the country they hope to go to, the Bill Clinton appointee explained. Instead, a United Nations agency recommends a potential refugee for resettlement in countries like the U.S., and they are then carefully vetted by resettlement agencies in coordination with U.S. embassies.

Understanding this vetting process, President Donald Trump’s executive order signed in September disrupts the heart of the resettlement process, Messitte wrote.

The order forbids resettlement agencies from moving any displaced people without the express consent of relevant states and local governments. The agencies must document such permission to the government by Jan. 21 or lose federal funding, which could threaten their existence.

Messitte found that the order undermines the Refugee Act of 1980, which among other things stipulates that “maximum consideration” be given to recommendations states make to the federal government regarding refugee placement.

“The state-by-state, locality-by-locality approach under the order stands in sharp contrast to the act’s aim of uniformity,” the judge wrote.

He added, “Lest there be any doubt, giving states and local government the power to consent to the resettlement of refugees – which is to say veto power to determine whether refugees will be received in their midst – files in the face of clear congressional intent, as expressed in the legislative history of the statute.”

Messitte also pointed to the “potentially insuperable constitutional barrier” of state versus federal authority.

“Making the resettlement of refugees wholly contingent upon the consents of state or local governments, as the veto component of the proposed order would have it, thus raises four-square the very serious matter of federal pre-emption under the Constitution,” he wrote. “It is hard to see how the order, if implemented, would not subvert the delicate federal-state structuring contemplated by the Refugee Act.”

The case was brought by three resettlement agencies: Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Hebrew Immigrant and Aid Society.

Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, applauded Messitte’s ruling in a statement Wednesday.

“An overwhelming majority of governors and municipalities have already expressed their desire to continue welcoming refugees,” Hetfield said. “To those few who have not, we say not only is it unkind and un-American to ban refugees from your states and towns, but it is unlawful. HIAS will continue our work resettling refugees who have come to our shores looking to restart their lives in safety.”

Melissa Keaney, an attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project who argued the case on behalf of the resettlement agencies last week, said the ruling protects immigrants and reflects the nation’s values.

“It’s a really strong opinion where we have won on all the claims we presented to the judge,” Keaney added in a phone interview. “We’re thrilled because this means refugee families can continue to be reunited in locations that make the most sense to them.”

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