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Can Governors Really Say No to Syrian Refugees?

Probably not. But they could make the lives of refugees very difficult.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

A growing number of governors have opposed the Obama administration’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S., with many vowing to stop Syrian refugees from resettling in their states. Nearly all are Republicans, who seem to be in a competition to see who can be the most hardline on the refugee issue; Chris Christie even reportedly claimed that he didn’t want “three-year-old orphans” coming into his state.

Most of this is pure fantasy. Governors simply don’t have a legal means for barring refugees from their states, as immigration policy is the province of the federal government. “States would have really no legal authority to bar someone who’s granted refugee status from entering their states—someone’s refugee status is determined by federal immigration law,” says Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “If you have legal immigration status as a refugee, you can travel the U.S. freely.”

That said, states could try to obstruct the process of refugee resettlement, making it harder for those fleeing war, violence, and persecution to build a new life in the U.S. Once the federal government clears a refugee for admission, federal officials work with state-level refugee coordinators to help determine where in the U.S. the refugee should be resettled. State agencies are also responsible for directing federal funds to non-profit organizations that provide social services to newly resettled refugees. Collaborating closely with local governments, these agencies help them find housing, enroll their children in school, and look for work.

State governments could potentially refuse to pass any federal money to non-profit organizations that help refugees; their agencies could also refuse to work with non-profits and local governments to help refugees establish a new life in the U.S. That wouldn’t necessarily stop the refugee resettlement process, either. The federal government could find a workaround by distributing money directly to non-profits and coordinating with local governments to resettle refugees in a state that refuses to cooperate. It would simply make the process “much harder and for no good reason,” says Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. programs and advocacy at HIAS, a national refugee resettlement organization. 

But while states could refuse to cooperate on a broad scale with refugee resettlement efforts, it’s extremely unlikely they’d be able to exclude Syrian refugees specifically from receiving help while offering it to others, as that would spur claims of discrimination. So would Gov. Bobby Jindal’s executive order that state police should “monitor and avert threats” from all Syrian refugees that show up in Louisiana. “I don’t think the governors really thought this through,” says Nezer.