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Court rejects Indiana’s ‘discriminatory’ deterrant to Syrian refugee resettlement

Refugees from Myanmar arrive in Spokane, Wash. (Chad Nelson/World Relief Spokane/flickr)

Refugee rights proponents scored an important victory in Indiana when a U.S. District judge ruled against the state’s withholding of social services funding. It puts a halt to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s order to block funding for refugees for services like job training, cultural integration and social services. It allows groups like Exodus Refugee Immigration, which brought the lawsuit against the state, to resume supporting Syrian refugees resettled in the state.

“The withholding of funds from Exodus that are meant to provide social services to Syrian refugees in no way directly, or even indirectly, promotes the safety of Indiana citizens,” said U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in the ruling. “The state’s conduct clearly constitutes national origin discrimination.”

The ruling allows services to resume while the case is heard. Pence followed the ruling with a statement indicating that he is directing the state attorney general’s office to appeal the decision. He joined dozens of other governors across the U.S. who pledged to block the settlement of Syrian refugees, in the wake of an attack by the Islamic State in Paris.

The United States is poised to take in 10,000 refugees from Syria over the next year. It is a small fraction of the 85,000 refugees the U.S. will resettle and the millions of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Western countries. Some leaders believe that the government cannot adequately ensure that the vetting process of refugees will keep out terrorists. It is a point Pence harped on in response to the ruling.

“So long as the Obama administration continues to refuse to address gaps in the screening of Syrian refugees acknowledged by the FBI and a bipartisan majority in Congress,” he said, “Hoosiers can be assured that my administration will continue to use every legal means available to suspend this program in Indiana unless and until federal officials take steps to ensure the safety and security of our citizens.”

This week’s preliminary injunction is a promising news in this lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Exodus. Pratt said that Pence’s directive hampered the ability of the organization to do its job. The harm caused to the organization and the people it serves is greater than the potential threat to the people of Indiana. For their part, the lawyers for the state of Indiana say the governor’s policy was not discrimination, and was intended to provide protection.

Governors from 31 states have publicly protested the resettlement of refugees. Aside from New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, all governors are a part of the Republican party. Activists say the actions are politically motivated, while supporters argue it is about the safety of citizens.

“No state can unilaterally ban a group of refugees that has been vetted and admitted by the federal government. By trying to block Syrian families based solely on their nationality, Indiana is flouting federal law, the U.S. Constitution and our fundamental American values of providing refuge for families fleeing war and violence,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, in a statement.

The state of Texas failed in its attempt to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in December. A federal judge dismissed an injunction request, saying that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission “failed to establish by a preponderance of the admissible evidence that there is a substantial threat of irreparable injury.”

Whatever the final ruling in the Indiana case, it will not be the last legal challenge. This issue is certain to see other cases reach the federal level and potentially the Supreme Court.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.