U.S. Sen. Rand Paul REUTERS/Brian Frank

The senator gets a lot wrong in his amendment to exclude Syrian refugees from federal housing assistance.

Senator Rand Paul was doing so well. He’s been one of the few GOP members willing to talk sensibly about mass incarceration, and among even fewer Republicans able to speak about it in racial justice terms. The REDEEM Act that he’s currently co-sponsoring with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey would allow people who’ve been convicted of low-level drug offenses to become eligible for certain federal welfare benefits.

But now, Paul seems to be moving in a different direction, coming out against offering public benefits to Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. He has proposed an amendment to spending bills for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would block Syrian refugees from receiving housing assistance when they arrive.

“Make no mistake, we have been attacked in the past by refugees or by people posing as refugees,” said Paul in introducing his bill Wednesday. “The two Boston bombers were here as refugees. They didn't take very kindly to what we gave them—education, food, clothing, and they chose to attack our country.”

That is a mistake. The two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the bombing at the Boston marathon in 2013, were not refugees. They were the sons of an asylee, a much different designation that allows immigrants fleeing persecution to enter and settle in the United States, though under different terms than those used for refugees. As the Niskanen Center’s director of immigration policy David Bier explained in The Huffington Post:

Moreover, the Tsarnaev brothers were not themselves even applicants for asylum. At less than 10 years old, they were too young to be vetted, and they received derivative status from their father who had, indeed, come to the U.S. fleeing war-torn Chechnya. It's a stretch to claim that the system broke down because agents could not foresee that these schoolboys might one day grow up to be killers.

It’s not Paul’s only mistake in this call. Said the U.S. Senator from Kentucky, “My amendment says this that we're not going to bring them here and put them on government assistance. … My amendment would end the housing assistance for refugees in order to send a message to the President the people have spoken, we are unhappy with your program.”

It would also send the message that the federal government is willing to violate the constitution to defy President Barack Obama’s orders to accomodate Syrian refugees.

"To make housing available to some people and not others based solely on their national origin not only flies in the face of fairness, it also is a clear violation of federal Fair Housing law," said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

Louisiana is one of the states poised to accept some of the refugees, although its governor Bobby Jindal is dead set against this. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who’s running for Jindal’s office, is also against bringing refugees into the state and is betting his gubernatorial campaign on keeping them out.

But the Fair Housing Act is pretty clear about discriminating against people based on their national origin, religion (for those fretting about accepting Muslims), race, or color: You can’t do it. As Andre Segura of the ACLU’s Immigrants' Rights Project recently wrote:

[S]tates cannot decide to single out refugees on the basis of their nationality for exclusion or denial of particular benefits. … Likewise, any attempt by state or local law enforcement agencies to profile, stop, or arrest individuals simply on the basis that they could be Syrian refugees would also violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, as would any attempts to deny them housing. The Fair Housing Act, which was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits making housing unavailable based on national origin and would therefore bar such invidious discrimination against Syrian refugees.

Carl Lipscombe, poicy coordinator for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration compares the current backlash to Syrian refugee settlement to how African Americans were treated after emancipation. Writes Lipscombe:

The governors’ reactionary musings aside, their foray into refugee law—laws that clearly fall under the authority of the federal government—is perhaps most alarming because of its parallels to the post-Civil War experience of blacks in the U.S.  Many (of these same) states refused to “accept” freed slaves and passed laws that made it insurmountably difficult for Blacks to exercise their newly granted federal rights. These 27 governors are attempting to enact similar restrictions on Syrian refugees, which if allowed, could have sweeping implications on refugees from other countries.

Still, Republicans and a whole lot of Democrats in Congress are moving forward with a bill that would certainly complicate the process for accepting Syrians refugees, and possibly face other restrictions. But, as politically loaded as the refugee situation is, especially during an election season, politicians can’t simply disregard constitutional civil rights protections out of perceived inconvenience.

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