Refugee fight pits states vs. the feds

A young man carries a child as refugees and migrants arrive on a boat on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 7, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Just about any day now I expect some governor to declare that his or her state has the right to protect residents against foreigners, that the governor is preserving the “state’s right” to self-protection.

This might become the leading back story coming out of governors’ refusal to let Syrian refugees into their states.

But according to a University of Michigan law professor — not to mention constitutional scholars all over the place — the governors don’t have the authority to supersede federal law.

The bottom line, according to Richard Primus is this: “They can’t do it. The decision to admit a person to the United States belongs to the federal government exclusively. Once a person is legally admitted to the United States, she can live wherever she chooses. States don’t issue visas any more than they declare war. Indeed, putting foreign affairs under the firm control of one central government was one of the primary motivations of the Founders in creating the Constitution in the first place.”

Primus argues, though, that governors resisting the feds — such as what Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has done fairly routinely — makes good politics, even though it runs directly counter to what the law allows.

Primus writes that the states do have some say in refugee resettlement: “That’s not to say governors are totally powerless to shape the flow of refugees. There are things states can do to make themselves less attractive destinations. Most refugees need help getting their lives restarted—housing, language education, employment leads, and other social services. A fair amount of that resettlement work is run through state social-service agencies with the support of federal dollars. The states are the one with the boots on the ground in education, housing, and so forth—and they could simply decide not to take the federal money and not to provide resettlement services. Several governors have actually taken this line, saying that they’ll cease providing resettlement assistance.”

But to declare categorically that Syrians — or any other foreigner — cannot come to this country? That’s the federal government’s call.



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