A federal judge ordered a halt Wednesday to the Trump administration’s plan to give states and localities a veto over refugees being sent into their territory, saying the law doesn’t allow them a say.
The ruling is a major victory for immigrant rights groups, who had feared some communities would shut their doors thanks to President Trump’s executive order last year establishing the veto policy.
Judge Peter J. Messitte, an appointee of President Clinton to the U.S. District Court in Maryland, issued an injunction stopping the policy just days before it was to kick in.
He said decades of refugee law have made clear the federal government has the power, working with local charities, to place refugees where it deems best.
“By giving states and local governments the power to veto where refugees may be resettled — in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose, congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings and constitutional doctrine to the contrary — Order 13888 does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” the judge wrote.
He also questioned the workability of Mr. Trump’s plan, saying it wasn’t clear which local officials could even be qualified to speak for a community.
And he wondered how states would respond once a refugee is resettled then chooses to move — something that has been within their rights.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham blasted the ruling as a liberal court “run amok.”
“Another lawless district court has asserted its own preferred immigration policy in place of the laws of the United States,” she said, calling the decision “preposterous.”
Judge Messitte’s ruling came in a challenge brought by three religious organizations that help resettle refugees in the U.S.
“Today the sun is shining on refugee families and the communities who for decades have devoted their time and resources to welcome them,” said the Rev. John L. McCullough, president of Church World Service, one of the groups.
The local veto is part of Mr. Trump’s effort to constrain the refugee program.
He has ratcheted down the total number of refugees accepted each year, placed new vetting requirements on who comes, and has earmarked refugee slots for some specific categories of people, such as religious minorities and threatened Iraqis who assisted the U.S. war effort there.
Judge Messitte, in his ruling, seemed to scold Mr. Trump for his decisions, pointedly noting that the U.S., which historically has led the world in number of refugees accepted, has now been surpassed by Canada.
The Trump administration argues that the refugee and asylum programs must be taken together, and thanks to the recent migrant surge at the border, the U.S. humanitarian protection system for migrants is at capacity.
Some in the Trump administration have also raised security concerns about refugees, dating back to President Obama’s decision to ramp up acceptance of Syrian refugees amid that country’s civil war and growing terrorism concerns.
The local veto was Mr. Trump’s attempt to recognize those concerns.
The administration argued that communities that don’t think they can properly accommodate refugees shouldn’t be forced to do so. Governors and localities were given until Jan. 21 to tell the State Department whether they would welcome resettlement.
In court, the Justice Department argued that the policy wasn’t do much a veto as much as it was “consultation,” which the law encourages.
Judge Missittee rejected that as “Orwellian Newspeak.”
“Giving states and local governments authority to block resettlement unless they consent in writing more than ‘enhances’ their authority. It grants them veto power. Period,” the judge scolded.
Forty-two governors, both Republicans and Democrats, have signaled they would take refugees, in a striking show of bipartisan support for the program.
But Texas, which in recent years has been the top resettlement site for new refugees, last week became the first to use the veto, with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott alerting the State Department his state was closing its doors.
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