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Governors who say 'no' to refugees may not have law on their side

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner talks with reporters in O'Fallon, Illinois. Rauner expressed enthusastic support for bringing the NGA headquarters to the Metro East.
File photo | Katelyn Petrin I St. Louis Public Radio

Even as Republican lawmakers from Missouri, Illinois and elsewhere across the U.S., speak out against allowing Syrian refugees into their states, St. Louis is seen as a community that welcomes those most in need of finding a new home, according to Audrey Singer, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. “St. Louis is a place that definitely sees refugees and immigrants as assets and as members of the community, members of the work force, and members of the (city’s) future workforce.”

As officials were revising upward the number of victims of the terror attacks in Paris on Saturday, Mayor Francis Slay posted a message to his Twitter account that stands in sharp contrast to comments by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and several GOP lawmakers in Jefferson City. “The terror in Paris redoubles my resolve to offer STL, as a better home for Syrian refugees,” he wrote.

In his statement, Rauner said, “We must find a way to balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.

“Therefore, the state of Illinois will temporarily suspend accepting new Syrian refugees and consider all of our legal options pending a full review of our country’s acceptance and security processes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”

Singer said it is not uncommon for state and city officials to see immigration issues differently. She says that “cities are places that are about people” and are more focused in how groups of refugees and immigrants grow and prosper in their communities and add to the strength and diversity of their cities. Governors, she said, are concerned about “what they see as a threat to their population as a whole and are interested in applying pressure to the Obama administration to help change that.”

Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said governors have no power whatsoever to keep refugees from moving into their states. “Once they get here, they’re legal residents; and just like a governor couldn’t tell you that you couldn’t move into his state … they can’t tell refugees that they can’t move into their state.”

Anna Crosslin, head of the International Institute of St. Louis, reinforced what Singer had to say. The issue to her is how the situation reflects on “all of us as Americans and what we believe in, and that means freedom of movement and freedom of opportunity. So once people come over here, they’re able to move around the way any of the rest of us are.”

Twenty-nine Syrian refugees have been resettled in the St. Louis region, Crosslin said. The institute is the local affiliate of the U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants.

A matter of law

In 1941, the Supreme Court ruled in Hines v. Davidowitz that the Constitution is clear on the issue that the federal government, and not states, has the sole authority on matters of foreign affairs including questions concerning immigration, naturalization and deportation. The Refugee Act of 1980 also leaves no question that such matters fall under the exclusive authority of the federal government.


Limon says it is “disheartening” that elected officials would “discriminate and engage in some sort of collective punishment of people who have already been punished, who’ve already been victimized … who’ve experienced the carnage of Paris, over and over and over again.”

She says fears that some governors and other elected officials have that refugees from Syria represent some sort of threat are unfounded. “Refugees are the most vetted people who come to the United States - nothing like that happens with tourists, or students or business people who come to the United States.”

Limon said the vetting process for refugees takes several years, with security checks being performed the whole time an individual is being considered for entry as a refugee.

“First of all, they need to be referred by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, that usually takes a few years, then they are referred to the U.S. because under our criteria, we want the most vulnerable people, meaning widows and elderly and infirm, and then that process takes an average of two years.”

Process for refugees

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a 103-year-old nonprofit organization that receives government funding to help with rescue resettlement. Limon said once refugees are granted entry to the U.S., they are met at the airport by someone from one of the organization’s local agencies. “We’ve already prepared an apartment. We take them home. We give them a hot meal. And then the next day we take them to get a Social Security card, enroll the kids in school, finish their health checks and put them in English language classes,” a process that’s been going on since 1975, according to Limon.

Each year, under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president, in consultation with Congress, determines how many refugees the United States will accept during the coming fiscal year. This year, President Obama original set that number at 75,000, but increased it by 10,000 in response to the Syrian refugee emergency. Crosslin said she believed the plans for these refugees will be re-examined after the terrorist attacks in Paris, noting that the people who have come into Europe are not yet in a pipeline to come to the United States.

Limon said the number of individuals allowed into the country is broken down by continent. Because the process takes so long, she said, the actual number of Syrian refugees will be a relatively small part of the total number from around the world.

Limon said the organization tries to work with state and local officials in determining where and how many refugees can be located and does take into account the attitudes of local and state officials when trying to locate refugees in their new homes. “We want to settle refugees in welcoming communities. They will do better, the community will do better if they’re welcoming of newcomers, so of course we take everything into account.” 

Nassim Benchaabane contributed to this article.