Texas Has No Business Challenging Syrian Refugee Settlement, Judge Rules

A federal court says the law doesn't give the state the ability to sue the government.
A woman waves to passing cars in a rally to show support for Muslims near the Clear Lake Islamic Center in Webster, Texas, on Dec. 4, 2015.
A woman waves to passing cars in a rally to show support for Muslims near the Clear Lake Islamic Center in Webster, Texas, on Dec. 4, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- Texas has no case against the federal government and a refugee settlement organization over how Syrian refugees are settled within the state’s borders, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

With Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) leading the charge, the state’s health and human services commission sued in December to challenge how the Obama administration and the International Rescue Committee worked together to resettle Syrian refugees.

In an 18-page order, U.S. District Judge David Godbey dismissed each and every claim brought by Texas. It's not yet clear whether the state will appeal.

“Today’s decision upholds and affirms America’s proud history in providing refuge for the world’s most vulnerable," Jennifer Sime, the IRC's senior vice president of U.S. programs, said in a statement. “Refugees are fleeing violence and persecution and want nothing more than to live a safe and peaceful life.”

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris last year, Texas had sought more information from the IRC about the refugees it planned to bring into the state. The resettlement organization replied that it was looking to resettle six Syrian refugees in early December, but refused to provide more information about them, citing State Department rules.

That’s when Texas sought to block the resettlement altogether.

But at every step of the way, the state's efforts failed. Shortly after Texas filed suit, a judge denied the state's request to block nine Syrian refugees -- six of them children under the age of 16 -- saying Texas' claims that they posed a threat were "largely speculative hearsay." The judge shot down a renewed request from Texas in February.

In his order on Thursday, Godbey rejected claims that the government and the IRC were violating the Refugee Act of 1980 because “the legislative history of the Refugee Act simply does not support” the ability of Texas to sue. He added that Texas couldn’t plausibly show that the resettlement agency violated its contractual obligations with the state.

“This ruling is a strong rebuke of efforts to block refugee resettlement,” stated Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead counsel for the International Rescue Committee. “It sends the clear message to other states that such attempts are not only un-American, they are contrary to the law and will fail in court.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the ruling.

“Today’s decision upholds and affirms America’s proud history in providing refuge for the world’s most vulnerable.”

Paxton didn’t say whether he’d appeal the decision, but said citizens' safety will remain a top concern as he weighs his next move.

“I am disappointed with the court’s determination that Texas cannot hold the federal government accountable to consult with us before resettling refugees here,” Paxton said in a statement. “We are considering our options moving forward to guarantee the safety of Texans from domestic and foreign threats.”

The federal government has resettled more than 3,850 refugees in Texas since the beginning of October, but only 152 of them are from Syria, according to the State Department. President Barack Obama set a goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. this fiscal year, but only about 2,800 have been admitted thus far.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) wrote to the president soon after the terrorist attacks in Paris and said the state would no longer admit Syrian refugees. More than half of the nation's governors threatened to do the same. But they all soon learned they did not have the authority to keep refugees out of their states because the federal government sets immigration policy and refugees can move freely once they arrive.

Those who oppose refugee resettlement, and particularly the resettlement of Syrians, argue that they pose a threat because the government can't screen them properly. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump -- who has attacked Muslims in his stump speeches and proposed to ban them from entering the U.S. -- says refugee resettlement is essentially a Trojan horse. This week, Trump seized on the mass shooting in Orlando by an American-born citizen to justify his proposal to exclude Muslims and repeat his claim that the government has no idea who arriving Syrian refugees are and no documentation for them.

Government officials and experts say this is false; Syrians go through a special vetting process that goes beyond the normal lengthy screening procedures for all refugees. Refugees can't choose which country to resettle in, and only a slim minority are chosen for resettlement at all.

Despite this confusion over the the settlement process and the ensuing litigation, the IRC's Sime still found a way to be graceful toward Texas.

“The court is unequivocal in validating the lawfulness of the refugee resettlement program and reaffirms Texas' legacy in welcoming refugees,” she said in her statement.

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