Agencies sue Trump administration over executive order on refugee resettlement

Three refugee resettlement agencies are suing the Trump administration over an executive order that seeks to give state and local officials unprecedented power to block refugees from resettling in their communities. According to a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Maryland and obtained first by Yahoo News, the lawsuit argues that the order is unconstitutional and in violation of federal immigration law. 

“We are bringing this lawsuit to stop the Administration from yet another attempt to curtail refugee resettlement and eliminate the successful resettlement program by a thousand cuts,” read a statement from Melissa Keaney, senior litigation staff attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which is representing Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), Church World Service (CWS) and HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in the lawsuit. “Communities across the United States stand ready to welcome refugees; they should not be refused due to an individual politician’s dissent.”

A protest in front of the Capitol in October against planned Trump administration cuts to the U.S. refugee resettlement program. (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)

The executive order, which requires that state and local government officials provide affirmative consent in order to resettle refugees in their jurisdictions, was signed by President Trump on Sept. 26, the same day his administration revealed its proposal to admit just 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020 — a new low for the U.S. refugee program despite record-high numbers of people fleeing conflict, persecution or human rights violations worldwide.

Refugee resettlement agencies, including the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, have since been tasked with obtaining state and local consent under the executive order. As part of the State Department’s recently released federal funding requirements for FY2020, resettlement agencies must now submit written letters of consent from state and local officials in all jurisdictions where they may seek to resettle refugees in the coming year. 

16 year-old Montaha from Aleppo, Syria, walks with her two months daughter Batour after their arrival at the port of Elefsina, near Athens, on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. About 700 refugees and migrants arrived from Samos island to the port of Elefsina as authorities have been moving hundreds of migrants deemed to be vulnerable from the overcrowded Samos camp to camps on the mainland. (Photo: Petros Giannakouris/AP)

“Plaintiffs have nearly 300 years of combined experience resettling refugees in the United States, as they were doing so well before the Refugee Act of 1980 statutorily codified their longstanding role,” reads the complaint. “Never in all that time has the resettlement of refugees been contingent on the prior written consent of government officials in the jurisdiction where the refugee is to be resettled.”  

The complaint continues: “The Refugee Act, moreover, expressly reflects Congress’s considered judgment that refugees be resettled with their families, that they have the resources and opportunities necessary to thrive in their new communities, and that while states and localities should be consulted about resettlement, they should not get to decide where or whether refugees are resettled.”

All nine of the resettlement agencies that work with the State Department have already had to close local offices as a result of the Trump administration’s cuts to the refugee program. The three agencies behind the lawsuit argue that the executive order stands to further erode their ability to provide valuable services to refugees through local affiliate offices, while also potentially preventing thousands of refugees from reuniting with family members already in the United States. 

“Imagine coming to this country after years of violence, persecution and desperation, only to be told you cannot join your family because the state or city must clear new political hurdles in order to welcome you,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of LIRS, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Imagine being part of a welcoming community — where both the local economy and its cultural heritage are bolstered by the presence of refugees — only to have the door slammed shut by xenophobic and bureaucratic confusion.”

“This dystopian vision could become our American reality if this unconstitutional executive order is allowed to stand,” said Vignarajah. “We will not allow this Administration to further endanger children and families by exploiting fears and stoking nationalism.”

All the resettlement agencies have been scrambling over the past several weeks to coordinate their efforts to secure written agreements from governors and local officials in the various parts of the country where they place refugees. Vignarajah said that effort will continue even as LIRS and the other plaintiffs seek to challenge the legality of the executive order in federal court. 

“While we contend that this executive order is unconstitutional and illegal, we feel we have a moral responsibility to continue gathering written consent from states and localities in order to avoid any further delays in welcoming the most vulnerable as they flee war and persecution,” Vignarajah told Yahoo News. “Simply put, we will hope and fight for the best but prepare for the worst.”

Spokespeople for the White House and State Department could not immediately be reached for comment about the lawsuit.

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