Federal Judge Blocks Trump’s Order That Allows States to Reject Refugees

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
January 15, 2020 Updated: January 15, 2020

A federal judge has blocked a Trump administration executive order that allows states and local governments to refuse refugees under a U.S. refugee resettlement program.

U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Maryland granted a preliminary injunction (pdf) on Wednesday that enjoins the Trump administration from enforcing an executive order that requires resettlement agencies to obtain written consent from any state or local government areas they propose to resettle refugees.

The executive order, which was signed in September 2019, gives states and local governments the power to decide whether they have the capacities and resources to accommodate refugee resettlement.

“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.

This power was recently invoked by Texas, which became the first known state to opt-out of receiving refugees under the executive order. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the state has already resettled about 10 percent of all refugees entering the United States over the past 10 years, and also dealt with a disproportionate number of illegal immigrants who cross into the border state.

The case at hand was brought by three resettlement agencies—HIAS, Church World Service, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service—who say their work has been directly impacted and harmed by the executive order.

The agencies argue that the order gives states and local governments a “veto power” over refugee resettlement and that the order violates the law and express congressional intent. Moreover, they claim that the order causes them and refugees to suffer “irreparable harm,” saying that the order will be an evisceration of a long-standing refugee program (pdf).

The Trump administration has argued that because the president has the authority to decide how many refugees are to be resettled each year, he has a subset power to determine whether state and local governments can decide whether refugees would be resettled into their communities.

In a 31-page ruling, Messitte said that the order is unlawful because it gives state and local governments veto power and that it “flies in the face of clear congressional intent.”

Messitte also agreed that the order causes the resettlement agencies harm as they will continue to be in a “frenzy” while trying to obtain written consents, which will divert them from their main purpose and mission and possibly cause them to close down operations in non-consenting states and locales.

“The almost inevitable loss of goodwill and harm of reputation, at least in non-consenting states and localities, will compound plaintiff’s injuries,” he said.

He also added that the order “does not appear to serve the overall public interest.”

One of the challengers of the order, HIAS, welcomed the decision, saying in a statement that they were “grateful for the clarity of this injunction.”

“An overwhelming majority of governors and municipalities have already expressed their desire to continue welcoming refugees,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, said. “To those few who have not, we say not only is it unkind and un-American to ban refugees from your states and towns, but it is unlawful. HIAS will continue our work resettling refugees who have come to our shores looking to restart their lives in safety.”

Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham called the ruling “preposterous” and an example “of nationwide district court injunctions run amok.”

“Another lawless district court has asserted its own preferred immigration policy in place of the laws of the United States–and, in so doing, robbed millions of American citizens of their voice and their say in a vital issue directly affecting their communities,” Grisham said in the statement. “President Trump rightly and justly recognized that your communities are unique, and while some cities have the resources to adequately support refugees and help them be successful, not all communities can sustain the substantial and costly burden.”

“Knowing that, the Trump administration fulfilled a key promise by giving States and localities a seat at the table in deciding whether or not refugees will be placed in your communities. In addition, under the Refugee Act of 1980, Congress explicitly afforded the President authority over the refugee resettlement process, including by taking local consultation into account,” she continued.

“We are expeditiously reviewing all options to protect our communities and preserve the integrity of the refugee resettlement process,” she added.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to our request to comment.

Thirty-seven states, six counties, and nine cities have so far notified the State Department that they will accept refugee resettlements in fiscal year 2020, which began Oct. 1, 2019.

Meanwhile, two counties have so far opted out—Appomattox County in Virginia, and Beltrami County in Minnesota—from accepting refugees under Trump’s order. While neither county has resettled refugees for several years, both county leaderships have said their county doesn’t have the budget to support refugee resettlement.

The United States will accept around 18,000 refugees in fiscal 2020, which has been progressively reduced from the 2016 ceiling of 110,000.

Charlotte Cuthbertson contributed to this report.

Update: The report was updated to include a White House statement.

Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.