Panel Upholds Block of Trump Policy Letting States Reject Refugees

The order challenged by resettlement agencies allowed states and cities to decide unilaterally to refuse refugees altogether for any or no reason. 

Refugees and community activists gather in front of the White House in June 2017 after the Trump administration proposed capping the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A Fourth Circuit panel on Friday unanimously upheld a ruling blocking enforcement of President Donald Trump’s executive order allowing state and local governments to turn away refugees.

Three refugee resettlement agencies filed a lawsuit over the president’s 2019 order that created an opt-in system requiring both a state and a locality to provide affirmative consent before refugees could be resettled in a given city.  

The private agencies, which provide social services for newly arrived refugees, argued the order forces them to spend resources seeking the consent of every one of those jurisdictions. 

Prior to Trump’s rule, the law required the federal government to regularly consult with state and local officials on refugee resettlement but did not require their consent. Under the executive order, states and cities could decide unilaterally to refuse refugees altogether for any or no reason. 

A federal judge in Maryland issued a preliminary injunction blocking the order a year ago. U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, a Bill Clinton appointed, found Trump’s directive undermines the Refugee Act of 1980.  

The Trump administration appealed to the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit, but a three-judge panel sided with the refugee agencies on Friday and upheld the lower court’s ruling.  

“The burden of obtaining consent from every state and local government is an onerous one, requiring diversion of resources away from the resettlement agencies’ core missions,” U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan, a Barack Obama nominee, wrote in a 28-page opinion.  

Under the Refugee Act, prospective refugees seeking to live in the U.S. must obtain a determination of their refugee status before entering the country. Then, if approved, refugees are sponsored by a private, nonprofit resettlement agency that is contracted by the Department of State. 

The agencies must abide by the department’s rules to get federal funding for resettlement efforts, and the federal appeals court found they “face enormous burdens to comply with the order.”

“In the absence of federal funding for these refugees, local affiliates of the plaintiffs in non-consenting jurisdictions likely will have to cease their resettlement work,” Keenan wrote. 

Keenan was joined on the unanimous panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Pamela Harris, a fellow Obama appointee, and Robert King, a Clinton appointee.

The government defendants in the case include Trump and the secretaries of State, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. They had argued that the order does not always require consent from local jurisdictions before a resettlement can occur, because it allows the secretary of State to place refugees in nonconsenting locations under limited circumstances. 

The Fourth Circuit judges rejected that argument Friday. They found that through the Refugee Act, Congress chose only to require consultation with states and localities, not approval or consent from them.

“Nor did Congress include any other language in the Act suggesting that the opinions of states and localities should be given dispositive weight in resettlement decisions,” Keenan wrote.

The plaintiff agencies celebrated the ruling.

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, called Trump’s executive order “a blatant attempt to block refugee resettlement.”

“There was no legitimate reason to do this other than to make life harder for refugees, who have already suffered enough and simply want to start their new lives in peace,” Hetfield said in a statement. “Today the court recognized and validated the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which has been working well for more than 40 years with the full support of administrations of both parties, and has helped millions of persecuted people find a home in our country.”

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