Legal experts disagree on whether Alabama has a right to refuse Syrian refugees
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley made national headlines Sunday evening by announcing his administration will refuse entry to any Syrian refugees the Obama administration attempts to place in Alabama. But legal experts are split on whether Bentley and other governors have the legal authority to reject refugees.
Immigrant vs. Asylum-seeker vs. Refugee
Immigration is simply the act of a foreign national coming into the United States to live. The United States Supreme Court in 2012 reaffirmed the federal government’s full authority over the issue of immigration, to the frustration of many conservatives who bemoan the Obama Administration’s lack of enforcement.
Asylum-seekers and refugees are identical in the sense that they are fleeing some form of persecution in their home country. The difference is that asylum-seekers have already managed to make it to the United States, while refugees are submitting their request from abroad.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services branch of the Department of Homeland Security runs the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Under this program, individuals seeking refugee status are given a “priority level” determining the urgency of their request.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains:
— Priority 1: Cases that are identified and referred to the program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States Embassy, or a designated non-governmental organization (NGO).
— Priority 2: Groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.
— Priority 3: Family reunification cases (spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of persons lawfully admitted to the United States as refugees or asylees or permanent residents (green card holders) or U.S. citizens who previously had refugee or asylum status).
Once a refugee is given a priority level, the vetting process begins. The Department of Homeland Security insists that it vets refugees more thoroughly than any other traveler entering the country, harvesting biometric information and checking biographical data against numerous databases (FBI, CIA, State Dept., etc.).
The vetting process can be extraordinarily difficult for the U.S. government. Even Arabic names pose a challenge, as many of them are derived from fathers or grandfathers or the places they are from. In short, there could be dozens, even hundreds, of individuals with the exact same name from the roughly the same area or family lineage.
For these reasons, FBI director James Comey admitted his organization often lacks enough data to identify potential threats among refugees.
Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL1) received a classified briefing on the vetting process and walked away unconvinced the federal government can ensure the safety of U.S. citizens.
In the case of the Syrian refugees, once they are approved, the State Department places them in one of roughly 180 cities around the country — including Mobile, Alabama — that have organizations prepared to house them. Catholic Social Services (CSS) is the only organization in Alabama that works with the State Department to house refugees.
Though the CSS is part of the church’s Archdiocese of Mobile, the program is completely funded by the federal government. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the State Department will provide $1,850 per refugee for the first three months of assistance, to be used for reception, initial housing, food, clothing, referrals services and social programs.
If the refugees are not able to find a job in those first three months, or are precluded from doing so due to a disability, they are eligible for many welfare programs, including Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and Supplemental Security Income.
Gov. Robert Bentley and at least seven other governors have announced they will not receive Syrian refugees in their states. These governors are backed by armies of attorneys who will undoubtedly make the case that they are well within their legal right to do so.
The Obama administration clearly disagrees, as the president has reaffirmed his commitment to bringing roughly 8,500 more refugees into the country during this fiscal year alone.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Monday said he was aware of the governors’ concerns, but added that the Obama administration “disagrees that these individuals, many of them frankly the most vulnerable from Syria and the region, represent any real threat.”
Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott penned a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asking them to get involved because he “does not have the authority to prevent the federal government from funding the relocation of these Syrian refugees to Florida.”
David Leopold, an immigration attorney who has represented many refugees and asylum-seekers, told the Washington Post “governor(s) (have) no right to block anyone from coming. Resettlement is determined by the Department of State, and immigration is a completely federal matter.”
Leopold’s opinion is also shared by a handful of refugee agencies Yellowhammer reached out Monday.
If the Obama administration continues to push forward, governors could quickly be faced with deciding whether to stick to their guns, or acquiesce to the wishes of the federal government.
MORE ON THE REFUGEE DEBATE:
1. Map shows Alabama has already received hundreds of Middle East refugees in recent years
2. Sessions moves to revoke funding for Syrian refugee resettlement
3. Condoleezza Rice sums up why allowing Syrian refugees into Alabama is a bad idea
4. Byrne demands Obama halt Syrian refugee resettlement in Alabama, U.S.
5. Bentley refuses Syrian refugees relocating to Alabama