WASHINGTON - State and local officials cannot block refugee admissions in their jurisdictions, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, finding the Trump administration's new refugee policy is likely "unlawful."
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland temporarily halted President Donald Trump's executive order requiring governors and local officials nationwide to agree in writing to welcome refugees.
"Giving states and local governments the power to consent to the resettlement of refugees - which is to say veto power to determine whether refugees will be received in their midst - flies in the face of clear Congressional intent," Messitte wrote in a 31-page decision.
The judge said the administration's order and "grant of veto power is arbitrary and capricious as well as inherently susceptible to hidden bias."
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by three refugee resettlement agencies that work with the State Department to welcome adults and children who fled war and persecution overseas.
Trump issued the order in September to give locals a voice in the federal resettlement process for the first time and vowed to resettle refugees only in areas "that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force."
But the resettlement agencies argued in court that the new consent requirement has caused chaos and confusion, and threatens to dismantle a support network that connects refugees to housing, jobs and English classes needed to start their new lives in America. And, critics argued nothing in Trump’s order prevents refugees from ultimately relocating to states such as Texas that have said they do not want new refugees.
The resettlement agencies had asked Messitte to rule swiftly because approval letters are due beginning Jan. 21 if refugees are to start arriving in June.
So far, 42 governors and more than 100 local governments have signed letters of acceptance, according to the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service, one of the resettlement agencies that filed the lawsuit. Seven states have not said whether they will accept refugees: Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii, and Wyoming.
Texas last week became the first state to publicly refuse to resettle new refugees, with Gov. Greg Abbott, R, saying the state has “carried more than its share.” The state received more refugees than any state last fiscal year.
Trump issued the order after he set the annual national refugee cap for this fiscal year at a historic low of 18,000, down from 110,000 in 2016.
Trump administration lawyers defended the policy, calling the new approach a "common-sense requirement" for "enhanced consultation" with local governments that they said in court filings should take place before refugees are settled "within their borders." Administration officials said the impact of the order is limited because refugees could still travel anywhere in the United States once they are legally admitted.
In court last week, the judge repeatedly expressed skepticism that Trump has the power to allow individual governors and county executives to block the settlement of refugees in their jurisdictions.
Justice Department lawyer Bradley Humphreys said the consent order does not give local officials "veto" power and noted that the Secretary of State could overrule a local determination.
The refugee groups said the rule could prevent refugees from being reunited with their U.S.-based families in communities that have long welcomed refugees.
"While states and localities should be consulted about resettlement, they should not get to decide where or whether refugees are resettled," according to the lawsuit filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project on behalf of HIAS, Church World Service, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Attorneys said the president's executive order is at odds with federal law and faulted the administration for failing to provide sufficient justification or opportunity for comment before imposing a new requirement on the refugee agencies, which apply annually for federal money.
The Justice Department lawyer said there is no notice requirement for such changes, and that the lawsuit is premature because no decisions about funding for the refugee organizations have been made.
“Is there any limit to what you can do in an executive order?” Messitte asked during the court hearing. “You’re sort of making it up as you go along?”