Trump Administration to Give State, Local Governments a Say in Refugee Resettlement

In this June 20, 2017 file photo, Refugees and community activists gather in front of the White House in Washington.

In this June 20, 2017 file photo, Refugees and community activists gather in front of the White House in Washington. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

A new executive order requires enhanced consultation with local and state leaders before placing refugees in their jurisdictions, which immigration advocates worry will amount to veto power.

After the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks raised concerns about the vetting of refugees, a group of mostly Republican governors representing more than half of the 50 states said they would not welcome Syrian refugees for resettlement within their borders.

Back then, the objections were mostly symbolic—the 31 governors had no way to prevent the federal government from resettling refugees in their states.  

But under an executive order issued this week by the Trump administration, state and local officials would have an avenue to object.

The order, which has drawn swift condemnation from immigrant advocacy groups, directs the federal government to place refugees only in communities that agree to receive them. State or local governments’ consent for refugee placement would be considered, although the federal government could still override those local preferences when deemed necessary.

The order notes that state and local governments have not always felt adequately consulted about their ability to handle or prepare for incoming refugee resettlements and it directs federal authorities to enhance the level of consultation that takes place before refugee placements.  

“State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement, which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance,” the order states. “Some states and localities, however, have viewed existing consultation as insufficient, and there is a need for closer coordination and a more clearly defined role for state and local governments in the refugee resettlement process.”

The same day the order was released, the Trump administration also announced its intention to reduce the number of refugees admitted to the United States to 18,000 people in fiscal 2020, the lowest amount in decades.

Groups that aid in resettlements said the cutback and the order about placements were only a continuation of anti-immigrant attacks by the Trump administration.

“This order is in effect a state-by-state, city-by-city refugee ban, and it’s un-American and wrong,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “Is this the kind of America we want to live in? Where local towns can put up signs that say ‘No Refugees Allowed’ and the federal government will back that?”

But Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration, said better consultation with local governments has been sorely needed. 

“It is not only governors but frequently municipalities, as well, who have felt really left out of the process and that undermines support for the resettlement of refugees in general,” she said. “If there was consultation it was that ‘X’ number are coming.”

Local governments have also taken on more of a burden when the quality of subcontractors tasked with helping resettle refugees has not up to par, Vaughan said.

“Some did a good job of working with church groups or other social services agencies in these areas to have a support network but others didn’t bother,” Vaughan said. “They saw their role as helping the new arrivals sign up for social security cards and benefits and not much else.”

Donald Kerwin, executive director Center for Migration Studies of New York, a think tank that promotes public policies that safeguards migrants, said local and state governments should be consulted as part of the resettlement process. But he said federal funding combined with contributions by resettlement networks should pay for much of the cost of relocating refugees in a local community, he said.

“The state and local cost is not immense,” he said.

In Tennessee, the state general assembly tried unsuccessfully to block the federal government from settling refugees in the state.  The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the GOP-led lawsuit in April, finding lawmakers hadn’t established they had the authority to sue on the state’s behalf or claimed any injury.

Vaughan said many of the refugee vetting concerns raised by governors in 2015 have been addressed by the Trump administration, so she doubts as many states will object to refugee resettlement going forward. Additionally, none of the Paris attackers were found to be Syrian refugees, although authorities later said some of the attackers had posed as migrants in order to enter Europe.

A spokesman for the National Governors Association declined to comment on the order, noting staff were still reviewing it and discussing it with members.   

Kerwin said local communities are still very strongly supportive of refugees and he expects state lawmakers will be met with resistance if they opt out of taking in refugees.

“My guess is governors who are hostile to refugees are going to be quite surprised by the community response they receive,” he said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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