Despite Governors’ Protests, Syrian Refugees Settle Across the U.S.

By: - September 15, 2016 12:00 am

PASSAIC, N.J. — As he sat in a food pantry here, a 32-year-old Syrian refugee’s eyes widened when he heard that Republican Gov. Chris Christie had declared last year that he didn’t want any people fleeing the war-torn country to come to New Jersey.

“Does he want to send me back?” said the man, a married father of four who didn’t give his name because he doesn’t want his family in Syria to worry about him.

The man and his family fled to a refugee camp in Jordan after their home in Syria was leveled by a missile strike. About a month ago, they were placed in nearby Paterson, some of the more than 10,000 Syrian refugees who have been settled in the United States this year.

The resettlement plan, announced a year ago, drew angry protests from Christie and 29 other governors. But there is little the governors have been able to do to stop the flow — and only a few states are still trying.

Indiana and Texas are appealing federal judicial rulings in an effort to block refugees from their states until they have been screened to ensure they don’t have ties to terrorist groups. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, is appealing a federal court’s recent dismissal of a suit he brought charging that the federal government hasn’t consulted with states before placing refugees, as required by the federal Refugee Act of 1980. And Tennessee lawmakers are planning to sue the federal government, seeking more information about what the state will have to pay for refugees’ education and health care.

But so far, courts have rejected the states’ legal arguments. And governors have not threatened to remove refugees who are already on the ground in their states.

“Refugees are legal residents of the United States as soon as they land here,” said Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a national nonprofit that handles resettlement. “Nobody can tell them where they can or can’t live.”

The most recent count shows that 11,491 Syrian refugees have arrived in the U.S. since October, the start of the federal fiscal year, and many have gone to states that protested, like Texas and Arizona, which have received about 825 refugees each. (The State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, working with several nonprofits, decides where to place refugees.)

The Obama administration is still deciding how many Syrian refugees the U.S. will accept in the coming fiscal year, but the number is expected to increase.

Like Christie, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas opposed Syrian resettlement in his state. To express their displeasure, New Jersey and Kansas closed their state refugee resettlement offices, which help distribute federal funds and coordinate the nonprofits who work with the new arrivals. But the International Rescue Committee has stepped in to play that role in both states, and people who work with refugees say they haven’t been affected by the decision.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Health and Human Services Commission to suspend any work with federal officials on resettling refugees, but the flow of refugees to Texas never paused. In June, a federal district court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the state that charged that resettlement agencies had failed to adequately consult the state before placing refugees.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, the Republican nominee for vice president, blocked Syrian refugees from his state and threatened to withhold resettlement funding, before a court order forced him to back down in February. At least one family was diverted from Indiana before the order took effect. In court papers, the state said it only wanted to stop paying refugee service agencies for “social services” such as citizenship preparation and job certification, but would not withhold the federal assistance refugees receive, such as cash grants and help with education and medical services.

In its upcoming lawsuit, Tennessee will argue that it will have to pay as much as $100 million a year on refugees from Syria and elsewhere because the state is required to provide them with health care and language help in schools. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the state attorney general don’t support the move, but allowed the suit to proceed.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.