New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, pictured during the most recent Republican presidential debate, said this week that the U.S. should not accept even 5-year-old orphan refugees from Syria. Jim Young/Reuters

The federal government may make refugees residents, but state leaders can make the resettlement process difficult—and perpetuate fear by doing so.

Maybe New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was going for hyperbole when he said that the U.S. should not admit even four-year-old Syrian orphans as refugees. Or maybe not. A four-year-old Syrian refugee is about as vulnerable a person as one can imagine, and the official U.S. policy on refugee resettlement is to give priority to the most vulnerable people in need. It’s not just a pretty slogan on the Statue of Liberty.

But Governor Christie and at least 27 other governors want to shut the door to Syrian refugees. Never mind that governors have no say on accepting refugees. Once the federal government grants someone refugee status—following an exhaustive security vetting process—that person becomes a legal resident of the U.S. No one, not even governors, can discriminate against refugees based on their religion, race, nationality, or ethnicity.

Even if Governor Christie could somehow keep Syrian refugees from resettling in New Jersey, they would just settle somewhere else and move to New Jersey. That’s how strong the pull of family is, according to refugee-resettlement leaders. “There is little that governors could do, and little that they could want to do, to keep families apart,” says Linda Hartke, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in a phone call with reporters.

Where governors have much greater sway is over the mechanics of resettlement, the process of finding homes for refugees once they’ve been given that status by the federal government. After all, refugees need a place to live, and in most (but not all!) of the U.S., that place will fall under the jurisdiction of a state.

So governors can gum up the works for agencies that help resettle refugees. But much worse,governors can perpetuate a climate of distrust around Syrian refugees by the statements—which is the last thing they need after escaping the hell of war.

Nearly all funding for refugee resettlement is federal

States contribute very little to the aid that refugees receive for housing, food, clothing, and medicine. Two federal purses cover most of the government aid that refugees receive: one provided by the U.S. State Department and the other provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the U.S., refugee resettlement works as a public-private partnership program. The federal government works with resettlement agencies, typically faith-based charities, to help resettle refugees. The State Department operates the Reception and Placement Program, while HHS runs the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Both provide funds to resettlement agencies that work directly with refugees.

Since refugee resettlement funds are federal, states can’t cancel them outright. Conservative governors can neither detain Syrian refugees at their borders nor kill the emergency funding that gives them food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.  

Some federal funding for refugees flows through the states

The funds provided by the State Department go directly to resettlement agencies, so individual states can’t touch this purse. But the HHS funds—which provide refugees with cash assistance (for up to 8 months), medical aid, and employment services as they are relocating—are distributed via the states, for the most part.

Governors could opt out of receiving these funds. But according to Lavinia Limon, president and CEO for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, any federal funds diverted from the states would just be channeled to the refugee-resettlement service providers instead. So at best, Republican governors could maybe temporarily throw a wrench into the allocation of funds for refugee resettlement.

Several states have already opted out of administering these funds. Vermont, for example, takes in so few refugees as a matter of course that it makes little sense for them to devote state resources to coordinating nonprofits on resettlement. In Alabama and Tennessee, the states simply allow Catholic charities to take federal funds directly for refugee resettlement. While governors of both states oppose Syrian refugees, neither has any means of objecting except to ask the federal government not to send refugees their way.

But in the big states that admit a lot of refugees—Texas, Illinois, Michigan, New York—the money goes first to the government. And governors in those states could, at least temporarily, make matters miserable for refugees and the agencies that serve them.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Eskinder Negash, senior vice president for global engagement at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “I’ve been serving refugees for over 35 years. We have been doing refugee resettlement [as a nation] for over 200 years. This is a country of refugees and immigrants—or so I’m told.”

Resettlement agencies do honor the wishes of communities

While some governors don’t sound like they are requesting so much as demanding, resettlement agencies do respect when communities must decline refugee resettlement for legitimate reasons. Talking today with reporters, Limon gave an example of a factory closing, putting a temporary strain on a community to find enough employment for resettled refugees.

Obviously, this gets into thorny questions about what constitutes valid concern. But refugee resettlement leaders agree that national security is simply not one of them, given the intensity of the U.S. security regime. Refugees are screened by the United Nations before they are recommended for the U.S., and then they are screened exhaustively by federal agencies before they are ever even interviewed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And that’s just step one in the process. It takes at minimum 2 years to place Syrian refugees.

“Speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we're not going to shy away from settling refugees from Syria where it's in their best interest,” says Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the organization. Resettlement agencies steer refugees toward family and opportunity and toward places where the organizations have capacity. “For our purposes, we're not going to fall for that [political] trap, and we hope the administration does not fall for that trap either.”

Leaders could make people fearful of Syrians

Republicans such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who announced this afternoon that the state is requesting that the federal government stop placing refugees in Maryland, can do little more than ask. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will do anything to tighten security screenings for refugees.

But in the meantime, Governor Hogan and other obstructionist governors risk cultivating a sense of fear around Syrian refugees—fears that are misplaced to begin with but could be misdirected toward Muslims or Arab Americans. While there is room for governors to ask for details about federal security protocols, some of their statements could lead residents to think that there are no security precautions in place. And the chorus of Republican voices calling on a power that is not theirs to grant risks turning a life-or-death issue into a partisan circus.

“The protection that the U.S. offers for a very small percentage of the world’s refugees must not be denied to Syrians,” says Hartke. “To close the door on resettling Syrian refugees would be nothing less than a death warrant for tens of thousands of Syrian families running for their very lives.”

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